May 12, 2007 Cannes/St Paul de Vence
(Don't tell anyone, but it's actually May 13 as I write this.)
Today was another terribly handled deboarding. My tour group waited for almost an hour and a half before we were allowed to leave the ship. Instead of letting us sit on deck and have a second breakfast and then calling us when they were ready for us, they had us all logjammed in the onboard theater, waiting and twiddling our thumbs. I was really irritated.
Once we got on our tour bus, things sharply improved. The guide gave us lots of information about the towns we were passing through as we left Cannes and the Riviera to go up into the hills to St Paul de Vence. The Cannes Film Festival begins in just a few days, and preparations were underway for it. Cannes is a very glitzy town.
St Paul de Vence, on the other hand, has preserved its medieval past, in terms of architecture at least.
The ground floors of many of the buildings now hold galleries and other kinds of expensive shops, but the buildings and the medieval city walls are intact, and some people do still live in the upper floors of the old buildings. It's just beautiful, perched on its hilltop overlooking valleys to both sides. Marc Chagall moved here later in his life, died here and is buried in the cemetery.
One of the bronze castings of Rodin's The Thinker is in St Paul de Vence too!
After we returned to Cannes, many of us chose to walk around Cannes for a while before returning to the ship. The streets are lined with designer shops, and--because the weather has been warmer than usual--the beaches were full of people too. Not crowded exactly, but not anywhere nearly empty. And yes, one saw the occasional topless sunbather.
May 13, 2007 Livorno/Lucca
Today Princess redeemed itself. Our tour began on time, and we weren't forced to idle our morning away waiting for things to get going. We arrived in Lucca about 8:30 and began our tour. Lucca is, in my opinion, the most beautiful spot I've yet seen on the cruise. The Azores are beautiful, to be sure; but they don't have the depth of history that Lucca or St Paul de Vence does, and for some reason, Lucca pleases me more than St Paul. It too has surviving city walls, which one can walk atop. There were many walkers, joggers and bicyclists out there, later in the morning. The town itself is lovely. Again the narrow streets, multi-floor buildings, and old churches, but there just seems to be more of it in Lucca. The guide told us that historically there had been 99 churches in Lucca, even though the population in the past was only about 20,000. Nowadays only about 7000 people live within the city walls in the old buildings, and only about 6 or 8 churches are actually open daily for services.
The cathedral was begun (or maybe it was just converted from church to cathedral) after a bishop of Lucca became pope in the 14th century, and as you can see, the tower and the church don't match. The tower preceded the cathedral's building, and no attempt was made to match them. The cathedral has varying styles in it, as it was being worked on over a long period of time. Interestingly, the main facade was never finished, the guide told us, because the Black Plague struck in 1348 and as much as 3/4 of the population died. It took a long time for the population total here and throughout Europe to get its footing again. There are a good number of plazas throughout Lucca, because in the early 1800s, Napoleon's sister (I think) was given control of the city, and she ordered various blocks of buildings built down because the town felt too claustrophic. The guide said people are still irritated about the demolition, but it certainly makes the city more beautiful and welcoming.
There is a Roman amphitheatre in the city, but at a later period, because people wanted to live inside the walls, they began building apartment buildings on the inside of the amphitheatre. In spots you can still see the original stones of the amphitheatre, but in most spots the later construction covers up what was originally there. The residences that were first built, along the inside of the walls, are still there, though the residences in the middle were ordered torn down by the sister, so there is now a large plaza in the middle. The guide told us that some of the apartments still have Roman survivals, such as steps from the amphitheatre popping up in the middle of rooms and so forth. Sounds beautifully cool to me, but of course no one invited us in to see the apartments on the inside!
Are there beautiful hills and trees in the U.S.? Of course there are. But history just sits all over this countryside. One of the first roads we drove on, as we began the tour, either follows or parallels (for a while anyway) one of the ancient Roman roads, the Via Aurelia (which is how it's listed on the traffic signs). The land itself feels civilized by the millennia of habitation and building and usage. Marvelous. And, oh yes, we saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa off in the distance as we drove to Lucca.
Livorno, on the other hand, is a much newer place--dating back about 600 years, I think. It's a port city, and our guide said something like, "Ports are ugly, and Livorno is the ugliest." I think she may be right. Livorno didn't seem to have much to recommend it, except the old fort at the harbor which is lovely. Even the churches in Livorno aren't especially lovely. A lot of the people who got off the ship here got off to go to Florence or Pisa, not to stay in Livorno.
The great delight of the day, besides Lucca itself, was getting to visit with Nancy H-- (I'll leave her a little bit anonymous, since she might not want to be blogged). Nancy and I tried to arrange a meeting place and time via email, but as neither of us knew anything about the town, it actually took us about 2 hours to finally find each other. Nancy came by train all the way from Florence just to get together--a two-hour trip each way! She is currently studying at an art school there, after 13 years of being a public school art teacher. She has already sold a few of the works she did for classes, even though she's only in her first year here. She pointed out that what I had observed is true--Italy is extraordinarily expensive. Here's one example: at a little grocery store right in the middle of downtown Barcelona, I bought a half-liter bottle of Coca-Cola for about 0.89 Euro. In Italy I paid 2 Euro, and Nancy said they are 2.50 at some places. I wonder how people afford it. My little pot of morning tea in Lucca was also 2 Euro (something like $2.60-2.80), but at least I got a little pot, a nice cup and a table to sit at!
A big round of applause for Nancy, for coming so far to meet me, after so many years since we have seen each other, and for working so assiduously to find me, after our meeting plans didn't pan out!
May 14, 2007
An odd day. I could give you all the details of what passed between getting up about 6:30 and getting on the airplane about 1:15, but it wouldn't be all that interesting. The plane was not full, which was really nice, and I had my little bank of three chairs to myself. We took off around 2, I guess, and flew more or less south. Toward the end we passed over Sicily, and I'm assuming that the big snow-capped mountain to the east of us was Mt. Etna, but I reckon I could be wrong.
As we were deboarding in Malta (a nice small airport), I was fortunate enough that the couple I asked for information about getting to my hotel were Australians who have family in Malta and have been here once before, and they were quite friendly and helpful. Going through customs was very easy, and the customs officer asked me what Texas was like--if it was all ranches, and so forth. So we had a bit of an interesting conversation.
I got some Maltese lira at an ATM. One lira is worth more than 3 dollars, so it was quite a jolt to my bank account. And since the receipt was given in Maltese lira (just as the Barcelona ATM receipt gave me a Euro balance), I still don't know exactly how much money I've withdrawn. I haven't been able to log into my bank account yet to check because the wifi service I'm hoping to use here isn't giving me a strong enough signal from where I'm located. I may just go back to their office tomorrow and see if they can troubleshoot a bit for me, or I may just have to sit at their location and work, which will be a shame because I'd rather sit on the seawall in the evening and look at the water as I work.
Which is by way of saying that my hotel is indeed just across the street from the Mediterranean, and I do indeed have a great view from the balcony in my room. The hotel itself is no great shakes. The people seem very nice, but the hotel is in the process of being remodeled, and it leaves a lot to be desired so far. Except for the view, it's really no better than an old Motel 6. No joke. But it's about as cheap as a Motel 6, so I reckon I can't complain too much. I am however getting really antsy about spending some time on the Internet, doing email, connecting with people, taking care of elimae and so forth. I feel sort of disoriented right now, having been gone so long and having mostly been out of email contact. I feel estranged. Once I get the wifi situation taken care of and get things going, I'm sure I'll feel more settled.
I went to the grocery store and got a few days worth of supper or lunch items, as well as some cold cereal to have for breakfast. (Milk-less, of course.) I'll be interested also to see if prices drop once I'm away from the shoreline here--that is, wandering inland or away from the heavily touristed areas. I just paid 50 Maltese cents (which is something like $1.60 or so) for a little 12-ounce cup of hot tea! (Can you tell I'm worried about expenses? It seems like I have had so many expenses right up front, paying for rail passes and all of that in advance.)
Back in the room I sat on the balcony and had a tin of tuna, a bottle of Gerber's applesauce (!), a bottle of tomato juice, and some chips for supper. Then I took a brief swim in the Mediterranean. It was fairly chilly water, probably in the 70s. If it hadn't been so late in the afternoon, it might've felt perfect. Of course it would be much more fun if one of you were here to enjoy it with me. My room has twin beds, so one of you can just fly on over. I'm scheduled to be at this hotel till June 13.
I'm tired. The last few days have been long, and I've been too geared up to sleep as well as I normally do. So I think I better close this up, go back to the hotel, read a bit, and then go to sleep!
Hopefully I'll be able to get my Internet worked out tomorrow and get this posted.
(Just came back to the hotel. There's a club/bar on the ground floor which plays very loud music. Fortunately I'm four floors above it, so I think I'll be all right, although I may not be able to keep the balcony door open.)