15….FIFTEEN

ITALY

Pirates constructed the leaning tower of Pisa.  Around the time of the Crusades Pisa was a port city with a victorious naval fleet and thriving merchant settlements throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East.  A status they had earned by fighting various neighboring cities – Carthage, Constantinople… and winning.  As a result it was a very prosperous city and consequently needed to defend its position against  the neighboring Italian port city -Genoa.  The struggle between Genoa and Pisa continued for over 200 years concluding an epic confrontation we now call the Battle of Meloria in which Genoa was victorious.  After the battle the Genoan military promptly  filled-in the Pisan harbor and sewed its land with salt rendering it unproductive for years to come.

My older brother is a photographer and architect, needless to say he loves Florence. The day after finishing my studies he arrived to help me clear out my apartment and to begin my travels.  Naturally the other girls and I hosted a farewell party and my brother and I ended up watching the sunrise with a bottle of Sangria on a bench in front of the Santa Maria Novella cathedral.   Later that afternoon we shipped the monolith of a bag I was sending home and jumped on a train to Pisa.

It was a totally new feeling as the train left the station in Florence, I knew I was not returning – at least not for a long time – and I watched as the city that had been a home to me flicked past the windows and gave way to the countryside.  That evening we collapsed into one of the rooms of a converted farmhouse right outside of town.  After a great cup of morning coffee at a street-side cafe facing the infamous leaning tower, we set out to explore the site.  Admittedly it was far more interesting for my brother, knowing details about the myriad of architectural marvels we were witnessing.  While I enjoyed the expansive  green grass and open space named “The Field of Miracles” found at the center of the building complex.

Next, we took a train north up the coast to La Spezia.  Halfway between Pisa and Genoa lies La Spezia.  While it is another port city, it never reached the levels of political or financial grandeur that either Genoa or Pisa enjoyed.  Instead more recently it has been called the “Doorway to Zion”.   Between 1945-1948 over 23,000 Jewish people used its port to escape into Palestine after WWII.  Less controversially, it is also the doorway to “Cinque Terra” a beautiful and rugged coastline home to five small towns.  Cinque Terra has been designated as a World Heritage Site, famous for its terraced fields and its rocky cliffs which dramatically drop straight into the sapphire-colored Ligurian sea.  Taking a small local train from La Spezia we met up with a few friends from Florence and had dinner together on the beach, watching a local soccer game in the sand.  As is the unfortunate truth for many small, and gorgeous, towns on the Riviera, Cinque Terra was too expensive for us to linger more than one day.

We followed the coastline arching northward until we reached Genoa, where the train stopped abruptly.  We collected our belongings and heaved our backpacks off the train along with all of the other passengers.  The station was like a ghost town in an old western movie, there might as well have been tumbleweeds and a hand-painted  Saloon sign, squeaking as it swung in the dusty breeze.  I was confused – where was the overcrowded buzzing transportation hub sending passengers off the a thousand destinations…After 30 minutes of unsucessful attempts to find an overnight train to France, we decided to settle into a couple of the plastic chairs in the waiting area.  Across from us was the only other person in the station, a rough-looking elderly woman deeply in slumber.  Not sure how long we were waiting we made an effort to sleep ourselves.  Finding it impossible under the harsh lighting and rigid seating, I walked around the station taking photos.  At midnight a security guard using simple body language explained the station was closing and we were no longer welcome to enjoy its accommodations.

Our plan had been to sleep on the train therefore saving the cost of a hotel room and were sticking with it- besides the weather was very pleasant that night, so we followed the old lady into the park.  She seemed to know where to get a night’s rest on a tight budget.  Once stepped off the pavement and into the darkness we realized what we thought was a park was actually some land in front of the station that had been left to its own devices and was completely wild.  It was also, as it turned out, home to dozens of Genoan homeless. With some difficulty, we located a vacant tree and sat down with our gear, leaning against its trunk.   My brother reminded me of the half bottle of Grappa and Ouzo we had brought with us left over from my apartment and I dug them out of my pack along with a little stereo. The grass around us was nearly two feet high and moved beautifully in the soft breeeze that had started up, for the rest of the night we laughed and sang – enjoying our spoils in the sea of green.

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