WHEN TIGERS SMOKED PIPES
“When tigers smoked pipes…” is the Korean equivalent of “Once upon a time…” to indicate to the listener/reader that what follows is a tale of imagination and adventure. There is nothing Korean in this upcoming tale, but I like the imagery, hence the title.
We are off to Italy, one of our favorite travel destinations in Europe. We are joining a group of our friends on another tour organized by Fran to Northern Italy, starting with four nights in Genoa. The flight on Air France was on time, and good food washed down with liberal amounts of alcohol made the long flight go fairly quickly. I was glad we arrived in Paris with a long enough lay over that the lengthy security lines still allowed us sufficient time to get to our connection to Genoa. A number of web sites advertise a hassle free connection to get you from the airport to your hotel anywhere in the city for 60 Euros. Or you could do like we did, walk out the door, get into a waiting cab, and pay only 35 Euros. It’s entirely up to you.
Genoa had gotten a bad rep in the sixties as a dirty, industrial city. This is unfortunate, as the steel industry has been shut down for over forty years, and the city is a treasure trove of churches, Renaissance palaces, and great museums. Aside from the mixed Romanesque and Gothic San Lorenzo cathedral (in front of which a Bollywood film production was shooting a wedding scene with a bored looking bride sitting on the entrance steps smoking a thin cigarette, waiting for her scene to start) my favorite church was dei Gesu SS Andrea e Ambrogio, a gem of Jesuit Renaissance edifice decorated with three wonderful Rubens paintings, including the circumcision of Christ over the main altar. The main square, the Piazza de Ferrari, with its monumental fountain built in 1936, is still a central meeting place for both tourists and locals, glanced by the Palazzo Ducale, the New Stock Exchange (Palazzo della Nuova Borsa) and the impressive façade of Academia Ligustica di Belle Arti (Ligurian Academy of Fine Arts.)
We had planned to have dinner with Joel and Valerie, a lively couple from San Francisco who we got to know on some of our prior travels. Unfortunately, their flight from Zurich got delayed, so they missed their connection in Munich, and did not arrive until 11 PM. Miki and I ended up enjoying a delicious dinner at Le Giotto, a terrace restaurant inside the Hotel Bristol. The carpaccio of salmon was as tasty as it was pretty, and the main course of sea bass rolled around a stuffing of pine nuts, olives and tiny balls of pasta was so beautifully presented I even took a picture, while the memory of its subtle flavors still rolls around my tongue.
The Hotel Melia, centrally located, but on a quiet, tree lined street, provides a breakfast buffet fit for royalty, with an assortment of fresh fruits, a cornucopia of wonderful pastries and yummy Italian cold cuts and cheeses, to be washed down with the kind of cappuccino to be found only in Italy. (I always go through espresso withdrawal when I come back from Italy. While espresso is now readily available in the States, somehow, the taste is never quite the same.) The hotel is quite considerate in providing not only a gym with work out facilities, but also a gorgeous swimming pool with a waterfall wall cascading into the warm waters of the natatorium.
Genoa is built on hills, as is our hotel, but if you keep walking down hill, you will eventually end up along the shore of the harbor, which, in addition to the usual sidewalk restaurants, yachts, cruise and commercial ships, great ferries going to Morocco and other Mediterranean ports, you will find the largest aquarium in Europe, as well as the reconstruction of a Spanish galleon used by Roman Polanski in his 1982 movie, the title of which escapes me for the moment.
Miki and I arrived in Genoa a day early, partly to get over jet lag before the tour started, and partly because I miscalculated the days. Better to be lucky than smart. Some of our fellow travelers also used the opportunity to travel on their own to other European destinations, but now everyone was arriving for our first dinner together. Sometimes, you come across a person who colors the experience you have of a country. I wear my glasses on a leash around my neck to keep me from having to look for them all the time, as I use it only for reading. So, when the little rubber band portion that secured the stem of the glasses snapped, I walked into an expensive eyeglass store on September XX, the main shopping street of Genoa, and asked the young woman behind the counter if they carried any, and how much they cost. She reached inside a drawer, asked what color I desired, and handed it to me with a warm smile, saying, “No charge.” Small random acts of kindness can change the world!
The first morning of our tour, Giacomo, our delightful Italian guide who is to remain with us throughout our stay, tried to break the new arrivals in gently by letting them sleep until eight, and not starting the guided tour of the city by bus and on foot until 9:30 AM. I was glad Miki and I, along with a couple of our friends explored on our own the day before, because we had a chance to see the things that interested us at our own pace, not to mention just sitting on a bench or in a café, and watching local life passing by, which is one of our favorite pastimes.
We stopped in Santa Margarita, a charming seaside resort, filled with blooms and pastel colored buildings, and restaurants willing to sate the appetites of the plentiful tourists. I was still full of the hotel breakfast, so while Miki and the rest of our crew sampled the local cuisine (quite tasty, as my son Peter would say) I took the opportunity to wander around the small town, finding a picturesque church filled with crystal chandeliers. The local beach was packed with pale larded bodies of Brits turning various shades of pink in a desperate attempt to return to work with a tan before their holiday ended. Admixed were a few lithe local girls in their string bikinis, being ogled by older Italian men sporting heavy gold chains and multiple leather bracelets, their torsos squeezed into Speedo swim suits purchased at a time before the pasta declared victory over the barbells of the gym.
After lunch, our group of 29 boarded a small ship for the short ride to Portofino, once the playground of British and European royalty, in turn drawing the beautiful people of the entertainment world, all of whom have migrated to new playgrounds. It is now the visiting spot of people who cannot spend enough money at home, and park large yachts in the scenic harbor in their attempt to solicit envy amongst the tourists coming here, with many of the later likely to have happier lives though burdened with less possessions. The town is tiny, consisting of one street, that climbs a hillside to a church. It’s worth the hike up, not so much for the church, but for the views provided from the outside, as well as for the surprisingly large cemetery that lies behind. There you will find graves dating back from the early 1800s to today. I was struck by a beautiful headstone of a child that died 7 days of age, well as by the photos of the deceased, sometimes alone, or in a family group.
We returned from Portofino to Genoa, and adjourned to Fran’s room for attitude adjustment hour, where we consume as much as alcohol as the hour will allow, while the noise level of the room ratchets up from loud to blast off volume. This is a terrific way for the people in our group who don’t already know each other to meet, and for old acquaintances to get reacquainted. The dinner our first night was highly forgettable, but tonight’s meal of salmon and vegetables was outstanding, as was the introductory pasta course. Having exhausted ourselves, we barely made it back to our room before crashing into the arms of Morpheus, and before we knew it, the phone was ringing for the wakeup call to go to Cinque Terre.
Miki and I had been here a few years ago by train with some of our group, but this year we were going by boat. The weather man predicted a forty percent chance of rain, which, thankfully, never fully materialized. The worst were a few sprinkles towards the end of the day.
Cinque Terre is composed of five tiny but highly picturesque towns wedged between the wine dark sea and the cliffs above, terraced with grapes, providing the primary source of income for the locals: wine and tourism. Back in the seventies, some brilliant marketing genius had the idea of painting the town buildings with various pastel colors, lining the narrow town street (yes, singular, as all but one of the towns possesses no more than one) with restaurants, wine tasting and knickknack stores, along with a smattering of high end clothing retailers, mix it with some well-placed stories in various glossy travel magazines, and voila, you now have a mass of tourists eager to spend their money and fill their social media pages with selfies backed by the now iconic villages so their friends can be properly envious of their jet setter life style.
We stopped at two, (Vernazza, Monterosso) as well as in Porto Venere (technically not part of Cinque Terre, but located just around the bend, and home of St. Peter’s church, offering a special blessing for those climbing its steps) but two of these villages would have been more than enough. The boat ride over from Spezia, the large port and naval base that was our departure point, was a bit rocky for some of the group, with 4-5-foot swells rolling our ship from side to side, necessitating my having to purchase some medicine for Miki and a few others in the group. Much to Miki’s annoyance, perhaps conditioned by the years of sailing I had done, I’m immune to motion sickness, to which she is sadly susceptible, effectively putting an end to my sailing days. During the rocking and rolling on the sea, Ann, a lady with a deep sense of humor, heard the gentleman in front of her call out, “Just grab my belt, and hold on!” Thinking he was talking to her, she proceeded to grab his belt tightly, drawing hostile stares from his wife on his other side, to whom he was actually speaking.
I was delighted when the rain predicted for our trip to Lake Como not only did not materialize, but turned into a warm, sunny day. We admired the numerous gorgeous villas dotting the shores of arguably the most beautiful lake in Italy, then boarded a small cruise boat hired for our group to get a guided tour of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Look at the Forbes 500 richest people in the world – 80% own a villa on Lake Como. We stopped at the town of Bellagio for lunch and a chance for those dying to spend money to scratch their itch. The sun shining on the Mediterranean houses reflected in the clear lake waters backed by verdant hills underscored the reason so many wanted to live in this idyllic spot. Sadly, for the ladies in our group who were hoping to catch a glimpse of George Clooney, he had sold his home in Bellagio he originally purchased for nine million for ninety million – not a bad profit!
In the evening, we arrived at the Grand Hotel Dino in Stresa on the shores of Lago Maggiore. I must say, of all the fabulous hotels we stayed at during our travels, this is one of the most beautiful, filled with old world grace and charm on banks of this pristine lake. Given a room with a balcony overlooking the lake across from Isola Madre, one of the three islands in this body of water, we could not have been more delighted!
After a tasty breakfast in the crystal chandeliered grand salon, we walked across the gardens to our hired boat to take us to Isola Bella, the island summer home of the Borromeo family, who were currently in residence. The palace contains great art treasures, but my favorite part are the formal gardens, terraced to provide the maximum of scenery. Napoleon and Josephine stayed here and wanted to buy the place. Informed that it wasn’t for sale, what else can an emperor do but come back and conquer the country!
A short boat ride across the lake brought us to Stresa, filled with high end shops and great restaurants. Our tour guide offered to take those who didn’t want to linger in town back on the bus, and telling those who wanted to stay longer to either take a cab, or a twenty-minute walk back. As it turned out, the walk was an hour and twenty minutes, complicated by a lack of sidewalks. Happily, all those who opted to walk made it back alive. Fran’s cocktail party helped to restore us all, followed by another good dinner.
We were sad to leave our luxurious Hotel Dino, but it was time to move on to Lugano, which meant crossing over to Switzerland, and a new currency, the Swiss franc. Wages in Switzerland are three times of those in Italy, and prices of everything correspondingly higher. Needless to say, all we purchased was our lunch, spending most of our time walking around the scenic city. We hiked up the hill to the cathedral, which turned out to be closed for renovations, but provided excellent views from on high. I had spotted a fish store selling not only raw fish, but also various fish sandwiches, of which Miki and I chose salmon with cream cheese on multi grain bread with arugula, which turned out to be excellent, and which we consumed with great gusto in this scenic location. The rain, which began with our departure from Italy, stopped magically when we arrived in Lugano, started again the moment we got back on the bus, prompting our guide to ask us for the name of the god to whom we prayed, so he could receive similar blessings.
The two-hour drive from Lugano to Lake Garda passed quickly enough, helped by Giacomo’s periodic narration of the area’s history, economy, and other tidbits he felt might be of interest to us. Our new abode for the next three nights, the Hotel Parchi del Garda, cannot compare in charm or elegance to the Grand Hotel Dino, but is quite comfortable, and offers an excellent buffet breakfast and dinner. It’s a brand-new hotel, along with similar others in the area, built to meet the demands produced by Gardaland, a Disney style amusement park just up the road.
Today is Sunday, and we make a relaxed departure at 9 AM to Verona, the city made famous by Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Appropriately enough, Juliet is also the name of our local guide, who quickly demonstrates to us that the city has a great deal more to offer than the setting of the play. The massive walls dating back to Roman times, along with an Amphitheater older than the Coliseum in Rome, and still in use today for operas and concerts, along with beautiful churches and ornate fresco covered buildings are among the many sights to captivate the visitor. I loved Verona, and would gladly come back for a more extended visit.
Leaving Verona, we spend about an hour driving to Sirmione , a walled medieval town on Lake Garda that looks like a Disney fantasy of crenellated castle walls, surrounded by a water filled moat, with narrow streets filled with shops and a preponderance of gelato purveyors with heaping piles of pastel colored sweets guaranteed to end whatever diet you deluded yourself into thinking you would follow.
Each night our evening culminates with a cocktail party in Fran’s room, making the group a great deal more cohesive than we would be left to our own devices, followed by dinner at shared tables, helping to make us cognizant of each other as individuals, as well as fellow travelers, forging an identity that will remain long after the trip has ended. Each of us has at least one story that helps shape how we understand our lives, and no two stories are ever the same, as each of us looks at life through the cumulated experiences of our journey. Being able to share someone else’s vision, learn from their experience, empathize with their travails adds a richer luster to my own view of the world. The opportunity to do this with a fellow traveler is one of the most satisfying aspects for me of our trips.
Our last full day touring has flown in faster than the overhead clouds, crowning our trip with an all day visit to Venice, that most popular of Italian tourist destinations, drawing more than 50,000 visitors each day. News of inexorable sinking of this iconic world heritage only serves to accelerate this flow.
The crowds were significantly larger than the last time we were here, but the rain, heavy during our journey, stopped by the time we boarded our boat into the city, and did not resume until the time of our departure. We had read that Venice was sinking, but we were given visual proof when we returned from lunch to the Piazza San Marco to find the place literally knee deep in water! Some people bought wading plastic boots, while the rest took off their shoes and socks and sloshed their way across to the cathedral and the Doge’s palace. We had been in the plaza two hours earlier, when everything was bone dry, and since we had seen all the sights before, we didn’t feel like we missed anything by skirting around what was now a lake. We had found a nice lunch place earlier, having struck off on our own, and it wasn’t until later when we caught up with the rest of our group that we found out that the place we left them sitting at a sidewalk coffee got flooded. The restaurant closed, wrapped their food in a bag, and kicked them out. As the Jimmy Buffet song says, “we do it for the stories we can tell.” As it turned out, the flooding surprised the locals, as well as us. It seems that while periodic flooding is now a way of life, based on the cycle of the moon and the tides, this event was supposed to happen three days later, so none of the makeshift boardwalks, seen piled in stacks around the city, had been deployed. Witnessing the flood of Venice affected both of us deeply. We felt sorrow for the thirty thousand people who live on this archipelago year-round, for the masterpieces of art and architecture about to be soon destroyed, and for the millions in the years to come, for whom Venice will only be a fable like Atlantis.
We made sad good byes with our fellow travelers, promising to stay in touch and visit prior to our next journey together. I, for one, intend to keep that promise. We had a small hiccup in our travel plans. At first, we were concerned about the flight being cancelled, as France is expecting a general strike on the day we fly into Paris. Then we found out that we would not be able to ride our tour bus back to Bologna to catch our flight, but instead had to take a cab from the airport in Verona, where most of our group was departing from, to the train station in Verona, then take the express train to Bologna, then transfer by car to the airport. Fran being the angel that she is, arranged for our train tickets and transfer (the high speed train from Verona to Bologna is fantastic), making the entire process easy and seamless. How Fran, who has circled the sun even more often than I have, is able to maintain her energy and zest for more travel is a mystery that is better appreciated than analyzed.
As we sit in the airport in Bologna waiting for our flight to Paris and visit with son Peter and his growing family, it’s time for me to close the Italy chapter of my postcard and wish you all a safe return to your homes. Until we next have the chance to share with you another exciting adventure,
George and Miki