On Thursday morning I was blessed again by the kindness of strangers. This has been a constant motif throughout my journey. I know that because of such kindnesses along the way, my heart has opened and I grow in trust “out there” in this incredible world of ours.
You’ll recall that I’m traveling with too heavy a load… a suitcase that is challenging to lift, let alone carry down the three spiral staircases and one hundred steps, and get up in to and down off the trains, and through the now customary centre post on these older regional ones. Madonna!
I find that on the nights before I’m about to travel, I don’t sleep well, worrying about making my train connections, finding my way to my hotel, not getting lost as I see the sights. Wednesday night was compounded by “how the hell will I get myself and my load down those narrow spiral staircases, that I thought were two, and in fact not until I did it, found now are three!!! And then how down all the steps onto Vernazza’s main street? And then how could I change my rail reservation so I arrive earlier in Lucca, my next overnight stop, given the only manned train station was either back a town in Monterosso, or ahead to La Spezia? And given my bankcard didn’t work in any of the “bancomats” in the Cinque Terre, would I have enough cash given I’d committed to paying in cash for my accommodations in Siena and Florence? I’d lose the 10% discount here paying with credit. And how would I see the Leaning Tower in Pisa?” And on and on and on, until I intervened and concluded:
- I’d put the hotel on Visa, lose the discount but have cash in my pocket for down the road.
- I’d take my time getting down the stairs and steps and would hope for help along the way.
- I’d forego Pisa to get to Lucca in enough time to enjoy it.
- I’d take an early train to Monterosso to see about changing my reservation, and if not, would still have enough time to get back to Vernazza and make the original reservations.
- I’d now fall asleep, which I did.
I awoke before dawn to two birds squawking with each other on the slate roof outside my balcony. Shush! And they did, for a while, and then started up again. Kind of like my internal dialogue being played outside. Again the squawking, so I conceded and got up. Packed, planned my descent strategy, took a deep breath and with lots of self talk, coached my way down the now realized three spiral staircases with the suitcase. Back up those stairs to fetch my go-everywhere-with-me MEC backpack, purse and coat and down again to begin the maneuvering to the street.
An answered prayer. Just outside the door, I met the newly arrived family from Alabama whose father kindly offered to carry the suitcase all the way to the street. I wept a few silent tears of gratitude (and accumulated fatigue) as I followed behind. On the street I fetched two of my favourite pastries, small “cornetti” filled with coconut cream, which I knew would taste good with the cheapest, best 50-cent cappuccino from the train station vending machine. I took the little elevator up to the platform and then realized that within thirty short minutes, I could begin my trip now hours earlier, by heading down to La Spezia. And that once there, I would sort out how to get to Lucca earlier than the originally scheduled mid-afternoon itinerary.
In a matter of minutes, I’d arrived, and was told that NOW the train leaving for Lucca, via Pisa. Another answered prayer, as I knew I could store my luggage at the Pisa Centrale station, and now see its Leaning Tower and Field of Miracles.
We headed south into Tuscany, passing through the Apennine mountain range, its highest summits still covered in snow…then through rolling foothills and cypress trees. Passing through Pisa’s first train station, I could see what I imagined were the old walls surrounding the Field of Miracles, and on my way back, did see the top of the Leaning Tower. I arrived, followed the signage to the baggage depot, grateful to see it full of baggage from other travelers with the same idea, and not the too-small lockers I had seen at an earlier train stop (which precipitated another few moments’ worth of worried “squawking.”)
Again, continuously grateful to Rick Steve’s self-guided walking tour, I passed several sights along the way…American artist Keith Haring’s graffiti painted wall;
Piazza Garibaldi; Borgo Stretto, Pisa’s main shopping street with its porticoes;
to the Piazza dei Cavalieri with its old clock, decorated palace, and sea-salt faded frescoes.
Then I arrived…at the Leaning Tower, its marble and that of the Field of Miracles’ Baptistery and Duomo restored to their original white, brilliant against that Italian “azzurro” sky. I discovered that the more I gazed at the Tower, trying to find a straight perspective for photos became increasingly compromised, so my photos were a bit askew.
I deliberated getting a reservation to climb the Tower, and chose instead to walk back to the station and catch an earlier train to Lucca so I could ease onto its tree-lined promenades built onto the top of its walls.
I settled in at the Hotel Rex Lucca, steps from the train station, and right across from an entrance into the old city and onto the walls. With the sun setting behind the Tuscan hills, the breeze blew cooler so I came back, changed into warmer clothes and walked to the recommended Osteria Via San Giorgio for my birthday-eve dinner.
a secondo, originally intended as rabbit with artichokes, but as they ran out, veal osso bucco with mushrooms, and a cortono of grilled eggplant, zuccini and peppers, glazed with olive oil, salt and pepper. Pietro, the owner, recommended a full-bodied vino rosso, a perfect complement.
My celebratory mood shifted to “contenta e trista,” bittersweetness, surfaced by the “buon compleanno” wishes of an exiting couple, and I was unable to finish the delicious meal. (I had announced to the owner, Pietro, that it was my birthday dinner and he, in turn, told me he’d just celebrated his 50th on April 5th…both of us Aries.) Through tears, I explained to the kind, young waitress, in broken Italian, my situation and asked, given how delicious the meal, might she pack it for me to take away. I’d read that “doggy bags” were not typical, in fact were considered out of taste in Italy, but as I knew I’d be arriving in Siena late the following day, I’d more fully appreciate completing my birthday dinner then. She was more than happy to meet this request and I was presented with a yellow grocery bag of carefully wrapped veal, vegetables and bread. If only there had been a way to pack the last of the vino rosso!
I was treated to a dessert of pure white pannacotta, sweetened only by the cream, and covered with a sauce of fresh raspberries and currants, and an espresso, to wish me “buon compleanno.”
For the first time, I walked after dark alone, in a strange city. I’d yellow-highlighted on the map my path back to the hotel, and easily found my way, feeling comfortable enough to even take some night photos.
Another restless sleep, compounded by street noise, the anticipation of the morrow’s day of traveling to my destined birthday abode, and what is evoked by choosing to being alone, in a strange land, on one’s birthday.