Portovenere: Poetry in any language

My husband and I hadn’t really intended to be in Portovenere. We were driving through Italy with no particular destination in mind. At a small gas station in the port of Genoa, we stopped to ask general directions to the waterfront, with every intention of finding a charming out-of-the way inn along the way, perhaps one with a view of the harbor and a trattoria within walking distance.

We had no timetable. It was chilly. It was the end of January, not the height of tourist season along the Mediterranean coast. The prospect of a good glass of red wine, a simple pasta and a comfortable bed beckoned. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The station attendant pointed — Portovenere, he repeated — along with a rapid stream of Italian, most of which was lost on us. “Portovenere, Portovenere, Portovenere. . . ,” accompanied by hand waving, curliques in the air, motor sounds, big smiles and, once again the repeated word: “Portovenere!”

It was decided. We pulled out the map, pinpointed the location and the route, smiled at our benefactor and trip planner, and were off to Portovenere.

What a Delight!

The little city is nestled into the craggy cliffs that line the sea; it has all the charm and colorful beauty of better-known Cinque Terre villages. Along with them, Portovenere is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. They are all magnificent. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Portovenere is ancient, and it retains the homey aura of a small fishing village, with terraced hillsides above.

Perhaps it was just because we arrived at dusk during a very slow season, but everyone we met, from the hotel desk clerk to local workers on their way to the trattoria, greeted us cordially and made us feel like long-lost friends.

The feeling was not diminished the next day, nor the next. We stayed on, enchanted by everyday life in this beautiful village. We walked the streets, sauntered along the docks, ventured up the steep, hillside cliffs when we felt like it. We breathed deeply of the fresh seaside air, and looked out on the waters of the Med, but felt no need to take the sightseeing boat to the nearby trio of islands that are major tourist destinations.

Familiar Comforts

The truth is that Portovenere wrapped us in the comfort of normal lifestyle, at a point in our three-week trip when we had tired of tourism. In some ways, it felt like going homeOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We sipped aperitivos at the local bar, and watched local television with residents relaxing after work, and then we ambled down the street to enjoy fresh seafood, good wine and spirited, if awkward conversation with other diners in the sparsely-occupied room. I’ve forgotten the dishes and the details, but the warmth of the experience, and the certainty that it was a good one, remain. I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but I like to think it is still there, awaiting my return.

It’s a fanciful thought, I know, appropriate in some odd way for this Thanksgiving week. Going home for Thanksgiving is deeply ingrained in our consciousness, whether that trip is to Grandma’s house or simply a gathering that brings family and friends together for shared experience, wherever it may be.

Special Places and Times

That first and only visit to Portovenere was more than a decade ago and it still stands out in my memory as one of those places I would return to on short notice! That’s what I have been thinking about this week — the prospect of revisiting favorite spots across the globe, an irresistible urge to experience old delights once again. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pisa is on the list, and Assisi, along with Carrara, where Michelangelo found his stone. The tops of the mountains shine white in the distance, chipped away over the centuries to expose the shining white cores. Counter tops are still quarried here, some of them by old methods. It’s quite an experience to drive to the summit of a marble mountain!

There are other places, too, to revisit, most of them not the subject of travel guides and magazine articles. But that’s what makes travel special, isn’t it? Finding those places that speak to the soul is not something a traveler plans.

If it happens, it’s hard to deny. Portovenere is like that.

Savor the Good Times

In my mind, I can picture my return, just as I picture returning to my former home city of Santa Fe this year for a large family Thanksgiving.

May all of you find a special place in the heart this Thanksgiving. Maybe we can all search out those delightful spaces and places at other times of year as well.

If it’s impossible to return home in a physical sense, however, at least make a point to revisit those special places periodically in spirit. Savor those experiences.

Along the road: The giggles are gone

The road goes on foreverIt’s hard to know just what will trigger a long-forgotten memory; it’s harder still to know just where that memory will lead. A small piece in last Sunday’s paper mentioned that the Highway Beautification Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on October 22 — 50 years ago. Of course, here in Texas we all credit Lady Bird Johnson with the impressive expanses of bluebonnets and wildflowers along our highways. That’s all good.

But highway beautification as a national mandate — Wow, I missed that one, I guess, in my youth. Actually, now that I think about it, I was living in Europe at the time — billboard proliferation along American highways was not something I concerned myself with then. But, on Sunday, that little news story suddenly brought back the memory of red and white Burma-Shave signs — and the realization that the act signed into law that long ago October day most likely spelled the end of a long tradition. Those clever advertising messages sometimes contained important messages; they certainly prompted adult smiles and kept young minds occupied for almost 40 years.

The 1965 Outdoor Advertising Control Program did not actually mandate the removal of signs, and it really didn’t force states to control those massive billboards. It was designed to discourage excessive signage along the Interstates, and stipulated that development funds could be withheld for non-compliance by the states. In that way, it was effective. And the Interstate highway system soon supplanted most of the older highways.

You had to be there: Missing one of the signs could sometimes be the cause of tears; more often, an attempt to fill in the missing word or phrase spawned uncontrollable giggles. It was, for generations of kids, one of the few fun things about road trips — often long, hot, dusty treks along not-so-good highways. Towns in most of this United States at that time were far apart, usually small, and boasted no readily available “fast food.” Gas station and rest room stops were the result of advance planning, for the most part.

Summer or winter, travel could be iffy — heat, cold, mechanical problems, flat tires, boredom, seemingly endless stretches of blacktop. Radio station signals made news and music unreliable across vast distances. But the signs — oh, those signs! We all looked forward to them. The “game” became who spotted the first sign first. Then, everyone “won” as the message was revealed across the miles. At the height of their campaign, Burma-Shave had 7,000 signs in all but four of the Lower 48 states.

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Yes, the occasional giant billboard may have ruined the view, distracted drivers and “polluted” the landscape. But, Burma-Shave signs? Although I haven’t thought about them for decades, I miss them. I’m also sorry  I  couldn’t play the game with my own child; I have trouble even explaining the concept to my grandchildren. But, then, today we travel on smoother Interstate highways — and the kids are plugged in to their own virtual world of movies, music or audio books.

The times have changed — but, the “road goes on forever.” I’ll just spend the rest of the day humming that tune and laughing about those verses! There’s currently a new interest in Route 66 and its associated memorabilia. Sadly, though, Burma-Shave signs seem to have disappeared forever.

Some of them were totally about the shaving cream. In 1932:

You’ll love your wife

You’ll love her paw

You’ll even love

Your mother-in-law

If you use

Burma-Shave

Others were just plain clever! From 1945:

‘Twould be

More fun

To go by air

If we could put

These signs up there

Burma-Shave

Sometimes they had important messages. Here’s a good one from 1949:

When frisky

with whiskey

Don’t drive

‘Cause it’s

Risky

Burma-Shave

Another:

Ashes to Ashes

Forests to Dust

Keep Minnesota Green

Or we’ll ‘

All go Bust

Burma-Shave

They could also be a little risque. This one’s from 1959:

Baby your skin

Keep it fitter

Or “baby”

Will get

Another sitter

Burma-Shave

You can read more of the iconic road-sign jingles, indexed by year at Burma-Shave.org.