Viva Italia

Viva Italia
Mount Castelluzzo

The Serbian ‘Autoput’ is the place for quick, albeit expensive travel. Toll booths seem to loom ahead every half an hour. More Slavic ink in my passport and another country to tick off my list. Making a beeline for Venice, we pass through the striking Slovenian mountains. At a short “ask for directions” stop at a servo, we are given a strong word about our disregard for their vignette warning. Apparently, we needed to have bought an e-toll pass. Needless to say, we are grateful that the threat of a 150 euro fine is wavered, due to our evident foreign ignorance.

Getting to Venice is not as simple as ABC. I do not let on about my fears, as none of the exact directions from my Google Maps screenshots find their match in reality. Seeing a decreasing amount of traffic and regular parking bays with signs for tourist buses, we wonder if one can drive into Venice at all! Eventually, we find ourselves on the island, in a car park, heading out to discover the world-renowned, water-abounding place. Yes, it is as I expected: somewhat. Little stone bridges spanning and crisscrossing the channels. Shops, homes and walkway on solid ground, with the floating transport, to the side, beneath. Our greatest find is a health-food store with organic, sugar-free, almond yogurt and other niceties. Allocating only an hour of parking, Mum and I have to begrudgingly pry ourselves away.
As for Dad, he is content to leave the famous city, at the appointed time. Shoe and clothing stores hold zero appeal, for him. And leave, we would, if we hadn’t mysteriously misplaced the parking ticket. Thankfully, the attendant checks the video records against our number plate info and we exit the auto prison. Next on the agenda is a much more humble place, called Privano. Here, I will be left with Tabita and her family. Once again, Google’s ambiguous hints get us roughly in the right district. Locals help get us further from our destination and a bit of street scenery later finally finds us a beautiful woman, clad in a white skirt. We smile at each other with that uncertain, yet telltale grin. Her face reads surprise also. “I thought you meant next week!” she confesses, after explaining their climbing into the car for a brief excursion to the mall.

It had been dusk on arrival and bedtime is a welcome reprieve from the day’s mileage. Yet, as steadily as 7 AM arrives so also the unforgivable and unforgettable tolling of the grand, church bell across the street… For five. Whole. Minutes. Rising and everything but shining, we meet Friday, hurrying along in its tracks. Tabita’s invitation to breakfast is welcomed. Expecting potatoes, due to spotting lunch on the stove, Dad is surprised to be given rice flour pudding, sweetened with jam. Served in elegant parfait glasses, with fruit on top, it is quite an appealing presentation. Such beauty comes in small sizes though.

With the mercury claiming affinity with the number forty, swimming at the beach is suggested. First, there is money changing to be done; veggies, pineapple, GF pasta and a train ticket to be bought. Strangely, at my station of purchase, tickets are purchasable for first class at the same cost, today. Needless to say, such a gift is accepted with the exchange of 64 euros. Back home, there is a gobbling of pesto pasta then grabbing of swim shorts and clambering into the car. Upon arrival, a euro and an half secures our parking spot for two hours.

Though this Italian bay is far from Australian-style-beautiful, it has its own charm. The depth increases gradually, and the waves are little more than what can be found in a baby’s bath. Well, maybe a bit more. But, the toddlers in the water are far from being washed away by any thunderous surf. For over an hour, the scarcely salty water cools us off. Tepid: neither cold enough to make me shiver, nor warm enough to make me wonder why I bothered, the water is once again, fit for babies. Even so, we all traipse back onto the grey, fine pebbles for a brief sun bake and re-toast. Our seaside fiesta all too soon comes to an end, as does the day.

Again, the faithful bell welcomes the morning. Water, breakfast, dressing and we are off to church. A few times, my breathing is momentarily paused, on this drive. The short tunnel, carved out of formidable rock, on the edge of the cliff dropping to the ocean below, is one such sight. I am grateful for a promised stop here on the return trip. Also impressive are the harbours, buildings and even parking in Trieste. In fact, Giordano, Tabita’s husband outright double-parked for all of our stay at the church.

Just outside the city is the 150 year old, Miramare Castle of some wanna-be Italian royal. Boasting free entry to the grounds, an ocean backdrop and an expansive botanical array, it makes for an enchanting Sabbath afternoon walk.

Another morning. This time, the bell does not stir me. I am far from it, as it rings across the town. Getting up just before 6, I want to ensure I am ready, when Tabita needs to take me to the train station. Soon, the purring, faint chugging noise presents the Frecciablanca, meaning “White Arrow”. Reminding me I have a first class ticket, Tabita and son, Josue, wave as I walk through the carriages, heading towards the end to find said-carriage. Confronted by a door that refuses to open, I resign myself to the nearest table and chairs. 

The flat terrain whirs by, the Mediterranean-rendered buildings predictably dotting the landscape. I don’t plan to talk much on this journey. Or even say much more than “ciao” to anyone. After all, they all speak Italian, right? Apparently, I didn’t count on tourists.

In the corner of my eye, I see a blur of red curls. Turning, I see a grimace as a young man looks at the seat behind me. Lamely, I ask in English, “Your seat?” Surprisingly, an American accent affirms this and his reaction to his unappealing allocation. Quickly analyzing his person, I invite him to sit at my table. Questions bounce back and forth. Where from and where to reveals this New Yorker’s destination is the saffron-coloured “Floating Piers”.

“Masterminded by 81-year-old artist, Christo Juvacheff, the three kilometre path of ‘live art’ bridges across Lake Iseo,” my companion enthuses. “It will only be there for a few more days, but I’ve heard it crosses from the mainland town of Pilzone to two small islands! I’m keen to see it!” Now, I am too!

I answer his question. I’m headed to the Piedmont Valley and Alps. His station approaches and goodbyes are said. My station appears shortly; a bus changeover and then Torre Pellice. Here, the histories learned in childhood come alive. The Agrogna Torrent, the old Waldensian churches and hearing the bells of sheep and cattle. I gaze in silence at the ancient College of the Barbes where young men learned and handwrote sections of the Bible in secret. Here and atop Mount Castelluzo, I see what faith meant in those days. This mountain – the theme of John Milton’s famous sonnet,

“Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones

Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,

Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old…

Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled

Mother with infant down the rocks…”

I muse, then smile on my return trek from the summit. The uniquely Alpine, slate roofs certainly look strong enough to weather many a snow storm. My pace quickens at the sight of yet another water fountain – ever flowing with fresh streams from underground springs. They are everywhere in this valley. I grin in recognition of the names of the streets, immortalizing yesteryear’s great ones. I hadn’t expected to bump into the hero, Henry Arnaud on the street corner – even if it was only his iron lookalike. Inside the museum, I gasp at the tiny piano-accordion folded book of Psalms, small enough to fit inside a ring – John Calvin’s ring, they claimed. They really did know how to make Scriptures secret and inconspicuous in that era of intolerance!

More history to re-live, but my two days here have come to a close. I swipe “Where can I buy a bus ticket and catch it?” into Google Translate for its native equivalent. This man indicates that way and his friend indicates another. The desired outcome achieved, I arrive at Torino – Porta Susa, as Tabita had instructed. Emerging onto the street from the subway beneath, I discover that there were at least four, if not more exits from the train platform.

Together with Tabita’s cousins and friends I do see that saffron colour from the highway above. I am now road tripping to another mountain range. The Dolomites. Here, with new friends I climb the Three Peaks of Lavaredo: a breathtaking and chilly hike… the grand finale to my week in Italy.