Sunday, November 25, 2012

Episode V - Italy

Saturday, September 8th 
Picture a sidewalk café in Genova (Genoa), Italy with a large statue of hometown boy Christopher Columbus at the top of the street. Sitting at a table are three tourists, waiting for tasty pizza and listening to a band down the street playing American rock songs from the 70s. Idyllic, don’t you think? Well . . . these three awoke in Geneva and will retire in Genova or Genoa or whatever. They keep getting these names confused. They’re exhausted.

Pizza in Genova
We were a little unsure of the train schedules because the online information was confusing, so we left our Geneva hotel early to book train tickets at the airport train station, from where trains to Italy depart. But our train departed from downtown Geneva. This gave us a couple of hours to kill down by the lake. Alex napped on the lawn. Lisa and I relaxed and took pictures. Then the three of us moseyed along the lake shore to the tall fountain.
Lake Geneva Fountain
We sat at a little sidewalk café, and as time approached to mosey back to the train station, we decided to order a few sandwiches. We knew this was not a fast food place, but how long could a few sandwiches take?
The mood along Lake Geneva is relaxed. People idle away time watching swans and the fountain. The café staff was also relaxed. We began to glance at our watches.
Swans glancing at us glancing at our watches. 
Picture three tourists with sandwiches swooped from café plates in one hand and pulling suitcases with the other hand sprinting along the lakeshore toward the train station.
Once we figured out how they number coaches on Swiss trains, we eventually found our assigned seats and relaxed. The scenery through Switzerland and northern Italy was beautiful except for the view of the inside of long tunnels. 
View from the train
The train was a little late getting into Milan, and we had a tight connection. This weighed on our minds. It was almost 6 p.m. Our train to Genova would leave at 6:05, and we had no idea from which platform.
When you want to catch a train to Genova, the electronic display doesn’t say “Genova.” It lists the train’s final destination. It’s this way everywhere in Europe—trains, subways, buses, whatever. This requires some knowledge of geography, which is difficult to obtain in five minutes as you sprint around a giant train station in a country where you don’t know the language.
We looked at the electronic display to see what trains were leaving at 6:05. There were a couple of them. We had no way of knowing which one of these trains was the one we were scheduled to board or whether either was. We found a likely train and Lisa and Alex dashed along the platform to find a railway official. Ordinarily they are everywhere, but none were to be seen. I stumbled across a posted paper schedule of trains and their listed schedules, located the train that leaves at 6:05 and stops in Genova, and yelled at Lisa and Alex as they were seriously contemplating jumping on the 6:05 to who-knows-where.
Our train was delayed. This gave us time to mop our brows, go have a look outside, and buy gelato.
We eventually boarded our train and sat in a coach with some young men who were listening to IPODs and talking to each other in Italian. About half way to Genova, I mustered my Italian and asked them if they spoke English. They both did, one a little better than the other. So we had a great conversation. We asked them what beaches are best in the Genova area, what to do, where to go, etc. They were very helpful and happy to talk with us. They gave us their Facebook contact information. They googled our hotel location and told us how we could find it: “Go downhill from the Genova train station and take the first right past the traffic circle.” Easy.  
We left the train station and trudged about a half mile down to the traffic circle and took the first right. There were hotels there but not our hotel. Italians are very friendly and helpful. They recognize the look of exhausted, lost tourists, and a nice Italian man inquired about our hotel. There is a traffic circle right at the train station. Our hotel was the first right down a tiny alley, a stone’s throw away from where we exited the train station. So we pulled our suitcases back uphill to the train station traffic circle and checked into our hotel. Then we ate pizza and went to bed.


Sunday, September 9th
This was our day to go to church to pray for safety and then to rent a car and drive in Italy. We awoke early and caught a cab at the train station to take us to church. Once at the address, the cab driver knew where we were headed and told us to go to the 4th floor. We arrived for sacrament meeting, and we were personally ushered near the front where the emptier seats always are. We prepared to listen to church in Italian. This might have induced drowsiness, but a young woman sat behind us and offered to translate. She whispered the talks to us, which was helpful. She had gone on a mission to the temple visitor’s center in Washington DC, and she knows the Packs in our ward who had also served there. She was so happy to know that we are friends with the Packs.
After the meeting we met another young woman who had served part of her mission in La Jara, Colorado. It’s a small world in the church.
We had chosen to stay in Genova because it’s on the Italian Riveria and because it has an airport with rental cars. We like to rent cars at the airports because they are outside of cities, and I don’t like to begin my rental car experiences in unfamiliar and congested city centers.
Our goal was to drive to Cacciarasca, the home of Lisa’s ancestors: the Pizzagoni family, the Delucchi family, and others. We rented a nice car, got Alex in touch with the satellites so he could navigate, and we were off. We did well. Driving in Italy is fine. The one little glitch was when we suddenly rounded a curve and there a multi-lane toll booth greeted us. I swerved to a convenient lane and drove through. Something told me that I needed to have done something besides drive through. Yes. We realized later that we should have driven through a lane where you get a ticket. At the exit toll booth we stopped at the barricade and pushed the HELP button. We had the following conversation:
Me: No ticket! We were in the wrong line in Genova.
Intercom: No ticket?
Me: No ticket! There was no ticket machine, but we got on this road in Genova.
Intercom: No ticket?
Me: No ticket! Genova! American!
Intercom: Silence . . .  then the screen told us to pay 65 Euros, which is a horrendous fee. I shouldn’t have said “American.” So, we purchased a small section of Italian freeway and continued on to Cacciarasca. 
Drive to Cacciarasca
The scenery was beautiful: rolling hills, little villages, and finally, a store where we could go to the restrooms.
We stepped into the store, and the smell of Italian cheese and dried mushrooms about knocked us down. Who in their right mind would buy something that smelly? We did. 
Cheese and Mushrooms

We discussed the problem of having it in our luggage, so the clerk shrink-wrapped it for us. Not the dried mushrooms. Shrink-wrapping would have crushed them.
Tourists with cheese
We spoke to the clerk, who knew a little English. When we mentioned the Pizzagoni family, he and the Italian-speaking clerk spoke with excitement for some time. We were told there is a Pizzagoni who stamps the bus tickets somewhere nearby. 
The friendly staff
Then the English-speaking clerk told us that beyond Cacciarasca in Albareto there was to be a mushroom festival that evening. He suggested we attend.
So we drove on to Cacciarasca. 
We made it. 
It was great. We stopped and talked to a family where one of the men could speak fairly good English. It’s a small village, and soon we had several people around talking to us about the Pizzagoni family members as they pointed to various points of the compass. 
Talking to a nice Italian man in front of what we think
is the ancestral home.
We stopped to see the church where Noni, Lisa’s great-grandmother was christened. 
The descendants.

The Catholic church in Cacciarasca.
We would have liked to have gone inside, but the man we had spoken to earlier told us that someone had purchased the church, and he would shoot us it we went inside. Oh.
We believe that the old, weathered house in the picture was where Noni had lived. 
Noni's house.

Italian countryside
We talked to several more people, none of whom spoke a word of English but who spoke at length to us anyway. “Pizzagoni!” (Pointing to various points of the compass.)
Evening was approaching, so we drove a few more miles to Albareto where we parked, paid the 6 Euro entrance fee, and joined the national 'Fiera del Fungo Porcino' or Porcini Mushroom Fair. There were booths set up, selling this and that. There was a large "Bar" tent set up for drinking. The event didn’t seem worth 6 Euros each. Then we went into another large tent, and there it was, the mushroom festival. 
Mushroom Festival
It had the feel of the barbecue in Manassa, CO on Pioneer Day, where the whole town and everyone who has ever lived there shows up. But in Albareto, it’s the smell of mushrooms instead of barbecue . We joined the festivities. We ordered two plates of food and one empty plate. We shared a mushroom/noodle dish and a mushroom/rice dish. The noodle dish won, but they were both good.
Mushroom dinner

Then Lisa and Alex went to the dessert table and we split two wonderful cheesecake desserts.
Dessert (w/o mushrooms)
I asked a man about the Pizzagoni family. He didn’t speak any English, but he talked with animation and enthusiasm on the subject, pointing to various points of the compass.
We drove back to the freeway, taking great care to find the freeway entrance tollbooth where you snag a ticket. The return trip cost us about 6 Euros.
The final thrill of the evening was after we dropped our rental car at the Genova airport and got a taxi ride back to our hotel by the Columbus statue. It was late, and the roads were clear of traffic, so the driver apparently decided to set the speed record for airport to hotel. It was better than any Disneyland ride. He sped through red lights and stop signs. We felt a few Gs of centrifugal force on the corners as his tires chirped. It was great.

Monday, September 10th
We slept in a bit after our exhausting day and near-death taxi ride the night before. After a late breakfast, we took a leisurely train ride down the coast a bit to look for the wonderful Santa Margherita Ligure beach the boys on the train had told us about. We dined at a little sandwich place and then went to check out the beach. It wasn’t Hawaii. There was dirt, then a narrow band of rounded stones, then water. We boarded a bus for a white-knuckle ride to Portofino, a little postcard harbor where the rich and famous dock their enormous yachts. 
My future yacht harbor.
There was a church and a castle on the hill, restaurants everywhere, and a casual summer atmosphere. We climbed to the castle and church and took a few pictures and spent a little time in the restaurant area. 
Restaurant area - looking up at castle and church.
Then we headed back to Margherita where Alex swam in the Mediterranean Sea.
Lovely beach.
Lisa and I sat on the smoothed stones and worried that Alex was swimming out too far. These were after all, the same waters where Jonah had been swallowed by a giant fish.

Tuesday, September 11th
So we decided to try the beach again. This time we took the train to Monterosso al Mare where we ate lunch. 

Then we all went swimming at Fegina Beach beneath the giant stone statue of Neptune. It was pleasant. We snorkeled a while. 
Tourists - hiding our beautiful tans.
Alex cut his toe on a barnacle on his way to the jump rock.  
After relaxing, swimming, and eating gelato, we took the train to Riomaggiore, one of the five picturesque villages of Cinque Terre linked by a spectacular seaside walkway. One could spend an entire vacation exploring these villages on foot. We walked as far as we could before time for our train back to Genova.
Love locks.
Everywhere we went in Europe, wherever there was a place to attach a padlock, we found padlocks with initials on them: Lowell-loves-Lisa sort of thing. 
Trail along the sea.

Century Plant

Restaurant along the trail.

Wednesday, September 12th
We needed to find our way back to Frankfurt. It would take a bit of time and money by rail, so we booked a fairly cheap flight from Milan to Frankfurt. We arrived early in Milan and stashed our luggage in storage at the train station. It was raining off and on.  (We had purchased some inexpensive and colorful umbrellas in Genova.) We walked to the church where Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is on display. 

Church adjacent to The Last Supper 
Organized tourists get tickets online in advance, but we were not that organized. But since it was raining we thought maybe the crowds would be light and we could get in. We were wrong. The crowds were very light, but the ticket lady was emphatic that the tickets for the day were all sold. But no one was there! I tried to reason with her, but it was clear she didn’t have a degree in economics. Oh well. I forgave her.
During the walk from the wicked ticket witch’s booth to the Milan Cathedral, I glanced in an open door and . . . Hey!  We had happened to walk by the open door of the Monastero Maggiore, a beautiful convent and chapel with the interior walls covered with frescos by Bernardino Luini and others of Leonardo’s students. There were scores of wonderful Bible scenes: the baptism of Christ, the stoning of Steven, Noah’s Ark . . . 

Christ's Baptism

Noah's Ark
Frescoes in the convent

The stoning of Stephen.

So there, ticket lady.
It was a fabulous place. The nuns had stayed permanently on one side of the interior wall, their only view of the outside world being a high, grate-covered window where they could see the wine and bread held up high by the priest during mass.
Milan’s cathedral is second in size only to St. Peter’s in Rome. It’s an amazing building. 
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag.

In front of the Domo. 
We toured it with the help of our Italy tour book, which pointed out several features of the cathedral.
Milan Cathedral

Next we visited the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the oldest shopping mall in Italy, adjacent to the cathedral. 
In the mall.
Then we went in search of gelato before returning to the train station to reclaim our luggage and take a train to our hotel near the airport. 

Gelato is wonderful stuff.
We ate our last Italian pizza and retired to a nice hotel, one of the largest rooms we stayed in on our trip.

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