Saturday, February 17, 2007

travel writing (4)

in the next installation of my travel essay, i sling some mud at a local travel hero, the edmonds native, rick steves. when i returned to the states in 2003, i discovered that this was a rather unpopular decision. in fact, i was a little worried that my friend pam clark, a devoted fan of the antique roadshow, the gods must be crazy, and (you guessed it) rick steves, might stop speaking to me if she caught wind of my mocking tone. these days pam lives in prosser, and i hardly ever speak to her, so i suppose that i have nothing to fear from pam.

to read the preceding chapters of my desperate travels in the cinque terre, click this link.

Hours later, without warning, our train unceremoniously emerges from a tunnel to that fabled city of Vernazza. Hoisting my pack, I happily stumble through the door and onto the platform. The haggard locomotive burps, coughs, and finally rumbles from the station, allowing the distant lull of laughing voices to fill its wake. An expectant smile flickers across my face. I can almost taste the gelato. But first things first: I must secure a place to stay. No worries, my friend Rick Steves already allayed my apprehensions concerning the night lodgings: “The town is honeycombed year-round with pleasant, rentable private rooms, […] simply show up by morning and look around [….] Any main-street business has a line on rooms for rent […] no reservations taken, just show up at restaurants” (Steves 578).

So, down a flight of stairs and into the busy breathing city center. In Vernazza, the city center consists of a single pedestrian-populated cobblestone street that empties into a small cove well suited for sailboats and small fishing craft. Forming an artificial canyon of sorts, apartments, boutiques, Internet cafes, and restaurants are stacked one atop the other all along both sides of the avenue. Tourists are everywhere, sipping the local white wine—after all, where else but in the Cinque Terre is wine cheaper than coke?—and languidly reclining on apartment steps, all in all pretending to be Italians well practiced in the art of the siesta.

Following the natural progression of the boulevard toward the harbor, I eagerly approach the waterfront. Sidestepping some sunbathers, I lean forward for my first touch of the Mediterranean. Instead of experiencing a transforming moment where all historical references to this great body of water suddenly converge into one epiphany about my place in time—that’s how I imagined my first meeting with the Mediterranean—the great big bulk straddling my back lunges forward as if to leapfrog my shoulders. I somehow catch my balance, roll to the side, and narrowly escape a refreshing dip.

Shrugging my shoulders in mild defeat, I cautiously walk along the beach toward the first candidate for a good night’s lodgings: Gambero Rosso. I’m not quite sure how this works though; apparently all the harbor-side restaurants set their diners outside in a sea of plastic patio furniture. In fact, the various restaurants seem to encourage their tables and chairs to mingle amongst one another. Perhaps waiters from the various establishments compete, racing one another to each new guest: speedy service, guaranteed! While the lack of indoor seating ensures a marvelous view, it also makes it difficult to determine the best manner of approaching a restaurant proprietor. After a moment of indecision, I head toward the door from which the food seems to be flowing.

Passing through some dangling beads, I step into a dim smoky room. Contrary to my initial impression, this appears to be some kind of a bar. I spot a woman behind the counter and prepare for first contact.

“Uhhh…buona sera!” I greet her enthusiastically. That’s “good evening,” I think.

“Prego…” She says as she polishes a glass, inquisitively searching me with her dark hazel eyes. Apparently yet another use for the term “prego.” With my three word Italian vocabulary exhausted, I turn to the standby communication tool of all oblivious travelers: my hands.

I point to myself, bring my hands together against my right ear in the manner of a pillow, and ask: “Where place to stay? Sleep?” My English grows choppy. I even try a little French. Then, in a rare flash of inspiration, I conceive the perfect gimmick to illustrate my sorry plight. I pull the crumpled page from my Best of Europe 2001 and point to two boldface Italian words that preclude Rick’s explanation of places to stay. She squints at the worn page, shakes her head “no,” and mumbles something I take to mean that they’re+full. As a consolation gift of sorts, she nods and points across the square before returning to her dirty china.

Threading in and out of tourists, I cross the square. Outside the indicated apartment, a few men lounge idly about, laughing heartily through wispy clouds of cigarette smoke. I approach one, about to speak, but he motions me inside. I enter, make eye contact with a young man in an apron, and launch confidently into my new routine. As I thrust the page under his nose, I glimpse a sparkle in his eye. I think he understands. I’m a pro! Perhaps those games of charades really paid off.

Perhaps not. “Sorry,” he says, clear as can be, “You have no reservations? We have no rooms left.” Either I suddenly picked up Italian, or he’s speaking English. “It be tough to find room this time of the season without reservation. Try Paolo at Trattoria del Capitano,” he says, pointing next door at another restaurant.

I try next door. “No, no rooms.”

I try next door to Trattoria del Capitano but am referred back to Paulo. Like the Mary and Joseph of past millennia, I’m faced with the harsh prospect of no room in the inn. Unfortunately, there are no stables either. All these tourists, I belatedly realize, have places to stay. Quaint little Vernazza is brimming with hotel patrons. By eight in the evening, it’s an entire village of no vacancies. I am Cinderella at two strokes till twelve; catch my coach now, or things will get ugly. However, this is no fairy tale: there may be no night trains out of here.

to be continued....

known traveler. "and here is life with reservations" venice, italy.