Monday, December 9, 2013

to italy and france

Europe Trip, Part 8

The biggest challenge of this trip (after the airport incident) was traveling long distances on our driving days so that we could spend time in one particular place. It was a tasting tour: we sampled things here and there, then dashed off to the next place. The biggest challenge in recounting this story is that I sometimes get confused about what happened when. Despite good intentions to keep an accurate journal, often I'd fall asleep at night mid-thought. Other times I'd try to write in the car, but the scenery and the navigating were more important than jotting down the details that might have helped me remember something. I piece together places by looking at my photos, but who takes pictures of gas-station cafes? Maybe I should have...

After leaving our campsite just inside the German border we drove south into Italy on a road that took us through deep valleys framed between the mountains. We saw villages perched high on the slopes. Churches and castles, sometimes grazing cattle. I'm not sure how many places we stopped in for coffees or food. Sometimes the memories merge into a mix of gas stations with great bakery or a cafeteria filled with regional food and coffee that would put our local roasters to shame. Or was it just that we had been drinking instant for most of the trip?

At midday, we detoured off the autostrada to the town of Riva del Garda. From the map it looked like we could drive along the road that skirted along the shore of Lago di Garda, maybe stop for a picnic before continuing south. But the lake was far below the road and it did not look promising for a lakeside picnic. Instead, we took off on a side road that twisted and switched back-and-forth up a steep hill through a few farming villages.
Church at Ustecchio dates back to before 1566.
The little car that could!
Above Lago di Garda, at Ustecchio.
A haze settled in over the lake and we stopped several times to look back at the view. In places the road became a single lane, threading into tunnels before opening into another view over the water, the horizon disappearing behind the haze. Cars honked horns before going around the next bend, sometimes even backing up to allow another car to pass. I hung on and wondered just where the road would take us, fluctuating between being annoyed that we had to spend so much time in the car yet awed by some of the sights. I think we were all a bit more relaxed when we got back onto a standard two-lane road.
S. Lorenzo at Voltino dates back to before 1187.

We continued west and south until night had fallen and we were done driving. The town we stopped in had a pizza place in a hotel but they had no room available for us. After dinner we backtracked a few miles and found the hotel that the clerk had recommended to us. It was kind of pricey and was in a water park that was closed for the season but we were happy to get some rest in the spartan room.

In the morning, the only staff person in the hotel was a woman making breakfast. I struggled to order anything beyond a latte, then pulled out my phrasebook. Egg. Ova. Of course. Cooked in olive oil and served with bread it was one of the best eggs I've had! Soon the guys joined me and repeated the process. Seems we were the only guests besides a traveling salesman!

That day, we packed up and headed for Genoa, on the sunny Mediterranean (technically, the Ligurian Sea, but I didn't know that at the time). From a description on a map we chose a place to explore. We parked the car and "strolled around in one small seaside neighborhood for about an hour and a half, sun, hot sun! Felt so good after cool and cold days, rain days. Up and down narrow staircases that connected (or didn't connect) one lane streets or alleyways."* I rolled up my pants to allow the sun to hit my legs and wished we could just kick back and spend the day.
Jon meets a friend at a public drinking fountain in Genoa.
Jon on a narrow stairway in Genoa.
Jon in Genoa.
Leaving Genoa, we traveled along the coast toward France, passing through tunnel after tunnel. I sat in the back seat and plugged in my headphones. It would be awhile before we arrived at our stop for the night. I was overwhelmed by the trip. My senses were full, filled with sights and sounds and the feel of the road under us. But a part of me was sensory deprived. I wouldn't realize this until the next day when we were in Arles...

As we neared Frejus, I paid closer attention. We almost made it to the hotel, but for some reason the address of the hotel was not the address provided to us by the listing service. We ended up in a narrow, almost dead-end cobbled street (not the last time this would happen), with Jon trying to negotiate the car without scraping the corners of the old buildings. A little more navigating and a stop at a visitor center and soon we arrived at our little hotel.

A 10-year-old boy was doing homework in the lobby. He called his mother on the phone, then handed the phone to me. He would give us the key and show us the room, she told me, adding that she would return soon from her errand. That evening we strolled around yet another old town, found a sidewalk cafe where we ordered dinner without knowing what we would get (not the last time this would happen, either), and found our way back to the hotel for another good night's sleep.

Enjoying the late afternoon sun in  Frejus.
In the morning, I was again up before Jon and Janis and headed downstairs for coffee and breakfast. I sat outdoors on a sunny deck, enjoying my quiet morning time alone with my books and coffee. That day we would drive to Lespignon to stay with our friends Pierre and Cheryl. Pierre made a couple of suggestions for places to visit on our way to their place, but I'd been reading about the area and already knew where I wanted to go. I wanted to see Arles.

*Journal entry dated Oct. 2, 2013.

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