Bella America, Bella Italia

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By Betty Eggert

In September of 2001, I hiked the Cinque Terre a collection of five villages along the Ligurian coast known as the Italian Riviera. Cinque Terre literally means Five Lands.  Before World War II the inhabitants walked from one village to the next until Mussolini connected them by train. These ancient footpaths now challenge hikers to become human mountain goats and discover the drop-dead views from rocky cliffs that plunge down to meet the sea.  Equipped with backpack, sun hat and hiking boots I followed a Swiss born, 50-year plus, female guide on Trail Number One, known as the Red Trail. It is important to differentiate this from Trail Number Two, the Blue Trail, the more popular one that follows the coast line and provides a more civilized experience. Hikes on the Red Trail, went one direction — up.

I met my guide in Pisa. We would travel to Portovenere for a  “little hike on Palmaria island.” This was a preview of her stamina. She began hiking at 14 she confessed. (At 14, I was a high school freshman and hiking was the last thing on my agenda.) Every few yards she raptured, “Wonderful. Wonderful.”

Italy 9 a.m. – United States 4 a.m.

Tuesday, September 11 – blue sky, sun, no clouds, a slight breeze, seas calm.

A one-way ticket on the boat from Portovenere to Riomaggiore takes us to our departure village for the first of this five-day adventure. During the 30-minute cruise, one can survey the coast line and preview on what is to come. The crew is well rehearsed.  Nudging the boat into the small harbor, whose curve protects cafes and fishing boats, a crew member jumps ashore and places a narrow, 10-foot plank from the boat to a small spot on the beach. We jump from the boat, to the plank to the shore balancing backpacks and grabbing an offered hand for assistance.

No chance to sightsee or grab an espresso. I follow my determined guide and hit the trail at 10 a.m. Later I learn this village was settled by Greek religious refugees some time in the eighth century, escaping persecution by the Byzantine emperor.

The postcard scenes challenge even the most accomplished photographer to capture the crystal-clear azure water, the narrow, stucco houses in Crayola pastels and hillsides covered in olive groves, as each step takes us closer to the top.

The narrow, rocky, uneven trail leads through vineyards that produce grapes for vino delle, Cinque Terre’s famous white wine. These vintners are not discouraged by the terrain. Vines run from mid-mountain to the ridge in tight, vertical rows planted on 60-degree slopes. Terraces allow the farmer to maximize his crop by using every centimeter of soil.  Harvesting is done by hand, pick and carry – up the slope or down to the nearest cart path and monorail. The monorail provides some back breaking relief.

A small, 20-horsepower motor on a steel-mesh platform becomes the Little Engine That Could pulling behind it a single, molded plastic seat for the farmer-engineer and hooked to this are two steel-mesh platforms carrying plastic crates of grapes. Controlled by one man, it slowly moves on a single rail that dips, but forges upward with its load.

Grapes ripen in the sun on trellises supported by a system of wires, which means you hike in the sun, water and sun screen are essential.

1 p.m. Italy. 8 a.m. United States.

We break for lunch in a forest where the shade provides welcome respite. Then we continue our hike and come upon 16-foot, round, stone towers.

Centuries ago they were used to pass signals from village to village to warn against invaders. Villagers took torches of fire to the top, climbing the circular, inside stairs.

The next rest stop is a large stone outcrop where spectacular views reward our efforts. A Kodak moment captures me looking out over the Golfo di Genova and is used on the cover of 2002 Andiamo Adventours brochure, the company I am hiking with.

1:45 p.m. Italy. 8:45 a.m. United States. A hijacked passenger jet, American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston, Massachusetts, crashes into the north tower of the World Trade Center, tearing a gaping hole in the building and setting it afire.

If hiking up is a challenge, descending is a work out for all of the leg muscles. This is no place for movie star, Kim Novak and her case of vertigo in the movie of the same name.  A misstep on the path, three feet wide, means an unscheduled swim in the water a mile below. Walking sticks are highly recommended and I borrow these from my guide. For me, the last two miles, over huge granite stones resembling building blocks for giants, is grueling. But it returns us to Portovenere and our hotel, Belvedere. 

A  stop at an outdoor cafe for a glass of white wine accompanied by small, wooden bowls of locally grown olives, revives our spirits.

4:26 p.m. Italy. 11:26 a.m. United States. United Airlines reports Flight 93, en route from Newark, N.J. to San Francisco, CA, has crashed in Pennsylvania.

It is believed Lord Byron, the British poet, visited Portovenere where he wrote part of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The town is strategically located on an extended peninsula and San Pietro, a 13th century Gothic church, is a landmark used by seamen throughout the ages.

We agree to meet in Albergo Ristorante, in the hotel, for supper. The area is known for its sea food; sea bass, squid, scampi and the pasta liberally seasoned with herbs and garlic.

7:35 p.m. Italy. 2:35 p.m. United States. American Airlines Flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon, sending up a huge plum of smoke. Evacuation begins immediately.

I hear someone pounding on the door of my hotel room, yelling “Betty, Betty, come. Come now.”  I open the door, to my guide, whose German accent is heavy with emotion as she forcefully pulls me down the stairs to the first floor lobby. “There.” she points to the television. My mind, foggy from a glass of wine and more exercise than I have done in years, does not focus and understand what the news reporter on CNN is telling me. United States has been attacked. Two planes into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon. The third crashes in Somerset, Pennsylvania, only an hour from where I live.

I swell with pride and sadness, when I hear Americans on United Airlines, Flight 93 fought back.  This becomes the first battle front  for United States when the plane crashes into a farmer’s field killing all 44 passengers, including the hijackers.

“It will mean war. You will declare war,” she flatly states. “That is the way it is.”

I couldn’t believe this. But her prediction becomes true. The War on Terrorism began on March 19, 2003 when the United States Congress authorized President Bush to engage in an “extended military engagement.”

In an overseas phone call from my friend in Pittsburgh we agree, I should continue my trip. “Besides, ” he says “there are no planes traveling in or out of the States. You couldn’t get home if you wanted to.”

8:30 p.m. Italy. 3:30 p.m. United States.

The FAA reports all inbound transatlantic aircraft flying into the United States are being diverted to Canada.

Our dinner of pesto lasagna, salad du mer, eggplant, pepper and tomato salad, lemon cake for dessert accompanied by the region’s dry, white wine is superb, but we Americans and Italians, are subdued.

9 p.m. Italy. 4 p.m. United States.

CNN National Security Correspondent David Ensor reports U.S. officials say there are “good indications” Saudi Militant Osama bin Laden, suspected of coordinating the bombings of two U.S. embassies in 1998, is involved in the attacks, based on “new and specific” information developed since the attacks.

September 12 we return to Riomaggiore to walk the Via dell’Amore, “little lover’s lane.” It connects Riomaggiore with Manarola and became the meeting place for boys and girls from these two towns. I explore Manarola, but my enthusiasm for this trip has evaporated. My hiking days ended with the news. Manarola embraces a harbor, where swimmers ignore the rock-strewn beach, and tourists join locals in the Piazza Capellini to sample focaccia, a flatbread with olive oil and salt, now popular in the States. It is said this tasty bread originates in Liguria and the best is here in Manarola. Follow your nose to the Place Cambusa for just-made-out-of-the-oven focaccia smothered in tomatoes, cheese and anchovies or tuna. Bought by the slice, find yourself a bench outside and watch a bit of Italy pass by. Two elderly Italian men, sit next to me and recognize me as American. They hesitate, but in their limited English, “Mi dispiace” [I am sorry.] America.” In my limited Italian, “Grazie.”

Sestri Levante is my final stop. The children’s storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen, was a fan of this town. One of its bays, Baia delle Favole [fairy tale], is named in his honor.

Home is the Grand Hotel Dei Castelli, a former castle at the edge of town, where I spend a rainy afternoon watching the church service televised from the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

The emptiness. I’m numb. A sickening bile travels from my stomach to my throat and I weep. I weep for the 2,800 men and women who will no longer sit down to dinner with their families, who will not hold their first grandchild, who will not not cheer at a Little League game. I weep for New York City’s fire fighters, who answered that morning call, the paramedics who tried to comfort the dying – the 343 husbands, boyfriends and dads. I weep for the 190 people dead at the Pentagon. It’s a long distance sadness and I wrap my arms around myself. I watch the towers burning and falling each time on CNN. The times are indelibly stamped on my mind.  Tower One hit at 8:46 a.m. and falls 56 minutes later. Tower Two hit at 9:02 a.m. and stands for 102 minutes. Then it falls in 12 seconds. The towers no longer reach heavenward. 

I feel the Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi is extending his country’s condolences to me personally.  I watch and listen to the slow cadence of his remarks. In Italian, I understand words like sad, grief, our friends in United States. We are sorry becomes a familiar phrase offered to me. Gently. Kindly. Compassionately. Sincerely. It’s part of a chorus from the short, mustached man who sells me the International Herald Tribune newspaper each morning and the waiter who brings my espresso and whose melancholy eyes will not meet mine and the young bank teller who gasps when he recognizes my passport and looks up saying, “Please. I am sorry for you.”   — all strangers, who look as pained as I feel.

The train from Cinque Terre to Florence takes me into the welcoming arms of my American friends. We need each other. We fill the days with distractions – a trip to San Gimignano  — a walled, Tuscan hill town that traces its history to the third century B.C. and the Etruscans. This much-visited town betrays its warring past. It’s named after Saint Gimignano, who saved it and its people from barbarian hordes. Today we admire its skyline with the last remaining 14 medieval towers out of the original 60. Those towers were also destroyed. Their beauty lost in feuds between the noble families of Guelph and Ghibelline. Once residents used these rooftops to go across town rather than using the streets. The towers were their defense system. The residents  protected themselves by pouring boiling oil on attacking enemies.  Husbands and fathers, wives and mothers who often met at the well in the piazza and children who played in the narrow, cobble stone streets, gone – caught up in their own catastrophe.  Now these last stark, square edifices stand as a reminder of an earlier time when individuals were unable to settle their differences peacefully.  Symbols of a past and perhaps predictors of our future.