The gift of the unexpected

Call it grit. Call it fortitude. Call it experience, acceptance, resignation — any number of descriptive terms can be applied. The truth is that every one of them is appropriate.

We were witness to the pluck and determination exhibited by Venetians during the recent record-setting rainfall, flooding and tides that washed over the lagoon and gained worldwide attention in late November.

Daily life and commerce was affected, to be sure. But daily life and commerce continued apace. Much seemed normal to a casual observer during a time when conditions were anything but normal.

Planes, trains and buses ran on time, waterbuses ran their scheduled routes, and other boats, including barges filled with building and clean-up materials, plied the canals, supplying goods and services to residents, hotels, restaurants and shops. Most gondolas and their gondoliers seemed at rest, waiting for sun and more forgiving water.

Portable boardwalks were repeatedy set up and subsequently removed along the busiest pedestrian thoroughfares. Christmas lights and decorations were much in evidence, and shoppers toted bags along with umbrellas, testimony that seasonal spirit and daily life intertwined.

Venetians donned their “Wellies” and rain hats and went about their business. Shopkeepers placed heavy mats inside their doors. Tourists snapped up “fluorescent-colored “cellophane boots with no quibbling over the 10 euro price, pulling them on and wearing them with no embarrassment.

Venice has a full-time population of only slightly more than 50,000, but up to 30 million tourists visit annually. We purposely chose an end-of-season cruise, hoping to encounter fewer crowds at every port, especially in Venice. We succeeded, but the city was by no means deserted!

Through it all, there was a pervasive air of unexpected good humor.

Venice was the last planned port of our 12-day cruise itinerary. Until almost the last moment, we were uncertain whether the call in Venice, scheduled as a three-day visit, might be canceled. When the captain announced that the water levels were receding and lower tides were predicted, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Disappointment turned to anticipation, even as we were advised that although St. Mark’s Square had reopened, the renowned basilica would remain closed.

Our arrival in the city was delayed by morning fog, its canal-hugging buildings shrouded in mist as our ship slowly made its way to its designated dock. It made for mystical photo opportunities, ship stewards passing coffee and pastries in the early dawn light to awed passengers pushing against deck rails even as the drizzle turned to pounding rainfall. The panoramic windows of interior lounges were equally crowded. The day dawned grey and chilly, but then a rainbow appeared. We had arrived in Venice.

Getting to the heart of Venice

From the port, the trip to the heart of the city involved a journey on foot to the tram known as the “People Mover,” then a transfer to a waterbus, where we joined other people — commuting businessmen, shopkeepers, local residents, office clerks, laborers, shoppers, students and visitors of many different nationalities — bound for stops accessible only by water.

The journey was instructive. We were surprised at how high the water was, still lapping at building doorways and bridge foundations. We were astounded at the visible watermarks that confirmed how much higher it had been in recent days. We remarked on the efficiency of the still-operating pump systems that continued to drain standing water from lower levels of Venetian buildings. We arrived at San Marco station in light drizzle.

As it turned out, the sun emerged as we made our way to St. Mark’s square. This was my first trip to Venice. I was not prepared for the sensory overload of entering the square. Any description seems quite inadequate. I can only imagine how it must feel when crowded with tourists. I am so happy to have had the chance to see it in its stillness.

I was — I still am — spellbound.

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The Basilica defies description

I don’t know how many photos I snapped. Every place I looked, from ground level to soaring roofs, held a view I wanted to remember. I stood in the center of this vast square and was completely captivated. I still have difficulty comprehending the size of the plaza, the opulence of each building’s architecture, and the magnificence of every vista.

And then, the final wonder of the day: Visitors were being welcomed into St. Mark’s Basilica. I am overwhelmed by my overwhelming emotional reaction. I honored the posted signs that prohibit photographs and videos of the interior, although I was sorely tempted to sneak at least one cell phone shot.

However, although many others did take their shots, I hold only my vivid mind pictures of the mosaics, the glistening gold ceilings, the tapestries and the carvings. I also have a sense of how the musty, damp odor combined with the scent of candle wax to heighten the aura of sacred mystery. I am certain that this incredible structure will once again dry out, continuing to inspire future generations of faithful worshippers and curious visitors.

We wandered along the city’s uneven paving stones for a time, stopping for a late lunch at an inviting restaurant. Then, in the late afternoon, we found our way back to our starting point, boarded a waterbus, and settled in with Venetian commuters for a winding canal journey to Plaza Roma. We transferred once again to the train for a quick ride back to the port and our waiting cruise ship, our floating “hotel.”

My husband and I would disembark the next day. Our plans called for us to pick up a rental car and spend a few days exploring Croatia, before returning to Venice.

The introduction to Venice was not at all what we had expected. It was more than we had hoped.

Surprises in the off-season

The experience was reminiscent of our trip to France in late January and early February of 2018. That year we flew into Paris at a time when the Seine was flooded, and departed two weeks later with snow blanketing the city after a paralyzing blizzard. It was a memorable time, for some of the same reasons.

Paris and Venice. Though distinctly different, both cities boast an abundance of architecture, art, history, culture, food and drink — enough to satisfy the appetite of any traveler. But to experience the cadence of life during imperfect times is an opportunity that not every visitor receives. My husband and I treasure that gift.

Coming posts and photos will chronicle our all-too-short visit to Croatia, as well as the “small-ship experience” aboard Pacific Princess, and our impressions of other ports along the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts.

Please join me for the journey.

Elevator Philosophy

100_7263There is something immensely satisfying about traveling — even if it’s a kind of working vacation. But there is also a sense of relief, and enormous comfort in coming home, no matter how rewarding the journey has been.

That’s the state I find myself in now — in the middle of November — with business to attend to, goals to accomplish, stacks of notes to make sense of, scores of ideas to develop and hundreds of stories to tell.

Yet, here I sit at my computer, poring over trip photos and marveling at the wonders of  Mediterranean ports. Following two weeks of non-stop travel activity, we enjoyed a calm and rejuvenating week at sea. The Atlantic Ocean seemed to spread out in calm ripples in every direction, welcoming us daily with superb sunrises and spectacular sunsets. We couldn’t have asked for a calmer crossing, unlike some in the past, nor for more companionable shipmates.

Likewise, the varied cities we visited — full of profound history, beautiful sights, friendly people, enticing food, good wine, interesting excursions and fine weather. As Americans, we encountered no hint of hostility or malice; instead, we were greeted with friendly smiles and an eagerness to talk, even though our command of local languages was decidedly limited.

We never felt unsafe, unwelcome or threatened, whether we were on our own or part of a touring group. To be fair, we ventured off on our own more often than we joined organized groups. We occasionally heard some minor grumbling from fellow travelers, but not often, and mostly about logistics, not the people or the places.

We witnessed a calm and well-organized student protest (its purpose unknown) in Messina, Sicily, and we were in Barcelona the week before the Catalan parliament voted to declare independence. Tensions were running high. Catalan separatism was evident, with competing flags and signs everywhere. Now, there is scant news about what will happen. But I think the movement has not died so easily.

Our time there was limited; we were disoriented by the traffic and the sheer size of the city, and I have to admit that we were cautious among crowds in light of recent terrorist attacks. But we walked the streets, rode city buses, joined thousands of children and parents to attend an event at the former Olympics Stadium, and were willingly assisted by locals who helped us find our way about. I would not hesitate to return — to Barcelona and to any other place we visited.

As a side note, high school Spanish was of little use in Catalonia!

No matter what happens,

travel gives you a story to tell.

In coming weeks, I’ll tell many more stories about the trip, share other insights and detail personal observations about the places we visited, the meals we shared, the people we met, the experiences we were privileged to enjoy.

I’ll also refer again and again to the snippets of travel philosophy that were boldly displayed on elevator carpets throughout Royal Princess, the elegant cruise ship that became our home for this journey. Each one is a gem, and although I tried to ride each of the ship’s numerous elevators at least once, I’m sure I missed some. Therefore, I know I missed out on some of the wisdom that is so uniquely displayed.

For now, though, an observation by Mark Twain seems in order:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Samuel Clemens wrote those words in 1869, for “The Innocents Abroad.” He said it pretty well, didn’t he? His point, I think, is as pertinent today as it was when his chronicle of “the great pleasure voyage” was published.

 

 

 

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.