Americans as a people are mainly land travelers, and all roads, it is said, lead to Rome. So most of our group of 24 travelers on W&L’s latest trip to Italy elected to fly to Rome a few days early, in part to get their feet firmly on new ground before taking to the sea. Nine of us—Patricia and Jimmy Bent, Chippy and Mac Holladay, Sue Wright, Nancy Brown, Jody Powell, and my brother Russ and I—chose the optional pre-cruise tour of the Eternal City. For those traveling from the MidAtlantic states, early departure proved to be a wise decision, for by Friday afternoon Hurricane Ernesto had sent up storm warnings wherever he threatened to make landfall. For the five of us flying from Washington, DC, on this day, the weather did look quite ominous: sheets of rain swept across the tall windows of Dulles International, while, beyond the airport’s rain-shrouded runways, slender trees tossed and bowed in the freshening winds of the storm.
We took some comfort in a vague recollection that planes have an easier time taking off in such weather than landing in it. Indeed, our departure proceeded without delay or any show of concern from the ground staff. At 7:15 PM, Air France 25 roared down the runway, lifting swiftly into the teeth of the gale as if it were breasting a heavy surf on its way out to sea. Within twenty minutes we were well beyond all weather. At 35,000 feet, we settled into the close tedium of trans-Atlantic flight and sailed on into the night, hastened by strong tailwinds. Few slept. We landed at Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris the next morning several minutes early, then made the inevitable labyrinthine transfer to another terminal for our flight to Rome. Despite warnings to the contrary, further security clearance did not cause us long delays. While the French require all passengers to go through airport security, they do so with a kind of abstraction that veils a well of irritability, as if such cautious measures were imposed by American foreign policy decisions, in which they neither were consulted nor allied. They waved us along the serpentine queue with empty expressions. Watching the time, we seemed to navigate these and other challenges fairly well, arriving at our gate several minutes before departure.
We landed again in Rome just before noon under a clear blue sky. After collecting our luggage, we met our transfer agent and promptly exited the terminal. At our first breath of fresh air, we might have felt like jetsetters, having flown on a whim halfway around the world in search of perfect weather. Indeed here the air was soft and welcoming. We were soon directed to our awaiting coach, which delivered us to the Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi, a remarkable island of serenity in the teeming traffic of Rome. The hotel is aptly named “Grand,” for despite its modern exterior the hotel’s ample lobby is all pomp and circumstance: with warm mahogany paneling, gilded Italian provincial furnishings, and dapper porters and tuxedoed managers seeking to be of service. Outside are beautifully landscaped grounds, with a large pool free of children. Our accommodations were roomy and similarly furnished, with upholstered damask walls and crisp linens on the beds. The view to the south is across the Park of the Borghese Gardens. From our windows on the fifth floor, the prospect is through a stand of palms glistening in the sun as they sway in the soft breezes and then across the deeper green canopy of evergreens that shade the Park, and finally to the stolid dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance. This was a good landing after all.
In the afternoon, most of us took naps to catch up on lost sleep, then met up in the evening for drinks and our first group adventure in Italy, a dinner in a nearby restaurant. This proved to be an altogether pleasant experience. The walk introduced us to the colors and textures of fine Roman neighborhoods, while our little restaurant, Mia Casa, helped us discover the life that is lived here. We strolled along broad avenues under stately villas painted in subtle tones of umber, ochre, and sienna, then, in the far corner of a little ristorante favored by locals, we gathered for our first group meal. We had many laughs over a fine light supper of shared appetizers and “secundi” dishes served by a spirited waiter Luciano, who seemed much amused by our interest in Italian vintages and our poor efforts to pronounce them. A couple of hours later, well fed, we wobbled out onto the street again, holding each other up as we made our way through the declining light back to the hotel and our welcome beds.
Our first day of touring began with a daunting buffet in the hotel’s splendid breakfast room. It is well known by Americans that Italians have never learned how to prepare scrambled eggs—warm and dry should not be difficult. Nonetheless, the breakfast here had many things to recommend: a considerate array of cereals, a robust coffee, many cheeses and breads, and a cheering selection of fresh fruit. Outside, the sky was once again a seamless blue and the day full of promises. At 8:45, our guide Dario Pennisi met our party of nine at the door of the tour company’s 50-seat coach. Would we be picking up any additional passengers, we wondered? For the next several minutes, we remained stationary as Dario and the driver fiddled with his guiding microphone and receivers. Ultimately unable to get the electronics in tune, they wisely chose to abandon the devices. We were a small group, after all.
Our first tour site was the enormous ruin of the Coliseum. Constructed between 70 and 82 A.D., ancient Rome’s most massive structure retains only the raw core of its former grandeur. Beyond the ravages of time, the Coliseum has suffered the abuse of long scavenging. For many centuries, it was used as a quarry for marble—“the Romans,” Dario explained, “are great recyclers.” Most of the Travertine marble from the ravaged exterior of the Coliseum went toward the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. The quarrying ceased when an 18th-century pope sanctified it as a place of martyrdom for Christians. Dario reported that recent research has argued that no Christians were ever executed here, though the tradition of papal visitation and commemorative blessing continues to this day. The interior of the structure has fared no better than the exterior, though the arena is now used for occasional concerts and other major public events. Seating is limited.
We next visited the Forum, picking our way carefully over the basaltic stones of an ancient road that once carried Roman citizens between these key compass points of Roman civilization. Once inside the Forum, the day’s increasing heat drove us as often as possible to the shade of sycamores for Dario’s narration. Dario made good use of a little book showing many photographs of Roman ruins with transparent overlays illustrating—or speculating—on their former appearance. This was especially useful in the Forum, which is more mysterious than revealing. The place is full of ghosts—and tourists—a fragmentary void that is equally mysterious and frustrating. Even with the little book of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t overlays, it is difficult to imagine what the place was like 2,000 years ago, bustling with government and commerce.
We next strolled to the “Wedding Cake”—Victor Emmanuel’s 19th-century neoclassical monument to the glories of his city, a fanciful construction not adored by most Romans, according to Dario. In the context of ancient Rome’s broken stones, one could find in it a monumental effrontery, though the immense memorial ostensibly honors Italy’s Unknown Soldier. Chancing hazardous crossings of Rome’s many busy intersections, we carried on for several blocks to the Pantheon, Marcus Agrippa’s enormous temple to the gods of Rome. The structure is most famous for its historic dome and handsome design, though the reconstruction of the portico by much later generations fell nine feet short of the original lines, according to Dario. Converted to a church many centuries ago, the Pantheon stands like a huge captive in a small square closely surrounded by shops and apartment buildings. The interior is resonant with voices and quite dazzling, especially for the powerful symmetry of the dome’s interior, which opens at the top to a large circle of sky some 130 feet above the floor. The light from the zenith effectively illuminates the interior, the occasional downpour notwithstanding.
From here, we strolled several more blocks to our awaiting coach, then happily took our seats for the drive back to the hotel. We met up again shortly thereafter for a pleasant lunch al fresco at the pool bar. Most then retired to their rooms for a nap while the sun continued to hammer down on the glittering pool, where Brother Russ lay baking.
We all met again for our last dinner in Rome. We piled into taxis for a ride to the Piazza Navonna area, where we found Dario’s recommended restaurant, Maccheroni, on the Via delle Cappelle. We had reserved a table for nine on the narrow lane outside the restaurant, a location that afforded us an excellent view of passersby: some taking the evening air, others meeting up with each other—a few rather intimately—or hastening elsewhere, as Romans seemed to do so often. Indeed, during all waking hours, Rome seemed always in motion, an unstinting animation that belied the weight and stillness of the city’s momentous architecture. Our light supper was again most enjoyable—can one ever be unhappy at a table in Rome? Following dinner, most of us strolled for awhile in search of a gelato on the Piazza Navonna, which buzzed with festivity—jugglers, musicians, pantomimes, all of whom had attracted crowds at leisure. On the way back to our hotel, we asked our taxis to stop for a coin toss at the Trevi Fountain. Here again we found hundreds of tourists and Roman youth, enjoying the splendor and cheerful commotion of the magnificent fountain, a sweet end to a fine first day of touring.
We had our luggage out early this morning for our eventual transfer to Anzio. The first item on the day’s schedule, however, was a tour of the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica. A tour of the Vatican might well be an ambitious prospect on any occasion, but a quick survey of the riches reposed at the center of Christendom on a day that would end at sea seemed a bit touristy. But “Historic Cities of the Sea” was also a collection of images, so a few glimpses of great things along the way would also suffice. After identifying our bags at the coach and bidding farewell to our own Borghese Palace, we were game. From the drop-off point, Dario got us to the group entrance gate at the Vatican Museum barely a moment before the chain was drawn across the entrance. Thus we avoided the vastly long queue of less fortunate visitors—and did our best to avoid their glances as well.
Our first stop was in the loggia or courtyard outside the Cortile della Pigna where we beheld—no doubt by Dario’s design—another bit of ancient Rome recycled for the Vatican, a colossal bronze pine cone. Once belonging to Nero, it now stands in a huge niche in the façade of the Cortile. Here also we found the only contemporary sculpture in Rome’s great treasure house of the ancient world and the Italian 16th century, an enormous polished bronze globe by Pomodoro in the center of the loggia. For the next couple of hours we wandered in a kind of aesthetic stupor through the galleries: the Galleria of Geographical Maps (of Italy), the Cortile Otagono with the Laocoon sculpture group that so inspired Michelangelo, and the Museo Pio-Clementino, which exhibited several fine ancient sculptures (most of the males festooned with fig leaves). Later that morning, many of the figurative sculptures and busts of ancient Romans that we had seen in the Braccio Nuovo seemed to come back in the faces of local folk. It was as if the ancient heads in polished marble had assumed a new life on the streets of Rome, bringing with them the same imperious pride, humor, or whimsical regard that they had once possessed in the flesh. It is said that art helps us to rediscover the world. In this case, the sculptor’s art had illuminated both the past and the present by making them seem coexistent.
There was, of course, too much to see in the Vatican. Dario speculated that if we gave each piece in the Collection its proper regard, our visit would extend for several years. But we were heading inexorably toward the Sistine Chapel, so we moved on apace. When finally we entered the hallowed chamber, which seems permanently inhabited by hundreds of tourists, the gaze was first backwards toward the disquieting splendor of the Last Judgment, then upwards into Michelangelo’s ferocious originality. The ceiling was commissioned by Pope Julius II, who kept the reluctant painter at work for four years until it was completed. Many of the images are so familiar that visitors sigh with recognition as much as amazement. Now cleaned of centuries of soot and grime, the colors of the frescoes are luminous. In the center is the wonderfully clever depiction of the Old Testament God giving the life force to Adam, the fingers outstretched just short of touching, as if a spark would jump across the eternal distance between heaven and earth, Adam languid in his helplessness, and Eve still within God’s embrace, looking on somewhat wistfully, as if she too knew already the expense and woe of that impending energy. Among the crowd of visitors, of course, there is always the human comedy: guards shooshing the masses, whose murmured conversation rises and falls in waves against the admonition. It seems part of the human condition that we put words to our wonder. Here also were cameras flashing despite widespread warnings against any photography—we must also try to capture what moves us. Add to this the general shabbiness of contemporary humanity milling about beneath the myriad idealized human figures of the Renaissance. One can only conclude that we are who we are.
St. Peter’s Basilica is all immensity and grandeur, as one would expect and as the Basilica so often declares. Measuring the crowd of visitors, Dario took us first as close as he could to Michelangelo’s Pieta, which shone behind glass in the chamber of its chapel as if lit from within. Dario mentioned some familiar facts about its creation—that it was carved from a single block of Carrara marble, that in sculpture Michelangelo claimed that he wanted only to release the figure that lay captive within the stone, and that the Pieta has recently been restored from the vandalism done by a madman. But Dario seemed most moved by the posture of protective grief so eloquently portrayed in the figure of Mary. He importuned us to imagine the overwhelming sorrow felt by a mother who has lost a son, then, with tears in his eyes, directed us again toward its perfect realization.
We wandered for the better part of an hour through the rest of the Basilica, astonished by many things beautiful and many things impossible to conceive as having been made by man. In the end, surfeited by grandeur, we had a longing to return to simple things, to the chaos of the city, a piece of bread, and a ride to the sea.
Following a cafeteria lunch with warm farewells to Dario, we met our coach and guide Sylvia at 1:45 for the 90-minute transfer to the pier at Anzio. With several of our group taking restorative naps, the drive passed quickly enough. Once at Anzio’s harbor, we found the Callisto tied up at the end of the pier. Our initial impressions were positive: the motor yacht had the advantage of size over the other boats tied up at the pier, and her appointments on our boarding seemed attractive enough—“callisto” is Greek for “most beautiful.” Fair enough, but an air of mystery hung over the early moments of arrival. Whom would we be sailing with? How would the Callisto fare at sea, and how would we manage the close spaces of a vessel well short of a cruise ship? What sort of a chef would we have, and how would the itinerary, so appealing on paper, unfold in real time?
Despite what may have been lingering doubts, the mood of the group was quickly buoyant. Before long, those on the early departure had caught up with the stories of those who had made independent arrivals. We made some acquaintance also with our cruise director Margo Mallar, a clear-minded, well-traveled woman of some forty years, ready with answers and eager to make us feel at home. After unpacking, we repaired to the Callisto’s plush lounge for drinks, enjoyed a few hoots at the life vest fitting, and at departure watched the port of Anzio recede as we sailed out onto the glassy Mediterranean. Dinner that evening offered a choice of duck or fish, soup, salad, and dessert—no complaints here. The atmosphere remained festive as the sun sank into the sea off our bow. One may have noticed the clever choice of art on the wall of Callisto’s dining room: an iconic rendition of the Wedding at Cana, Christ’s first miracle of turning water into wine. Indeed, the party went on well into the night, as many folks lingered on the deck long after coffee and dessert to watch the waxing moon dance on the shining surface of the sea.
Mac Holladay rose before dawn today to photograph the sunrise. He was not disappointed and remained at the bar for a second cup of coffee to report on his findings to later risers. A few others doubtless were awake at this hour as the Callisto plowed on through gentle seas to Corsica. Though small, she is not a quiet ship—her muscular engines are apparent throughout her decks—and every pitch and roll of the sea is recorded in her own posture. But the first day of our voyage was in every way pleasant. The sun rose through a thin veil of cloud, which soon dissipated. The longest leg of our voyage would soon reach the Strait of Bonifacio. We enjoyed an attractive breakfast buffet, checking up on each other’s sleep the night before (some obviously more successful than others). Then, well fortified for the day, we watched the horizon with hefted binoculars. Gradually, Sardinia to the south and Corsica to the north came into view. Small fishing boats bobbed nearby, and an alarmingly large cruise ship steamed past us in the same direction (fortunately, it was headed for other ports). Soon, we spied the white limestone cliffs of Bonifacio gleaming between bands of blue, a great sight in the raking light of morning.
We first dropped anchor in a little bay beyond the city. Here several of us happily plunged from the swimming deck into the cool, salty water. Before long, ten heads were conversing while those souls more reflective—or otherwise less inclined—watched from the rail. With the swimming stop accomplished, we repaired to the lounge for Miriam Carlisle’s photographic overview of our itinerary, an excellent introduction to some of the history we would encounter on this journey. We studied maps and artifacts of the empires of Rome and Carthage as well as photographic evidence of the largely mysterious Etruscans, whose civilization the Romans eradicated —conquering, they claimed, through self-defense. Miriam took us all the way to Barcelona, ending with images of Hamilcar Barca and his son Hannibal, for whom the city is named.
When the curtains of the lounge were opened again we were tied up in the picturesque port of Bonifacio. Established in the ninth century, the oldest town on Corsica doubtless achieved that distinction through its defensive position on the cliffs of a one-mile fjord. High limestone ramparts rise to battlements and then to an extensive cluster of houses. Bonifacio has retained its medieval character, though today the citadel has all of the high commerce and sophistication of a popular vacation destination. Below in the harbor, sleek yachts, some of them at least as large as the Callisto, crowd into narrow slips. Boat traffic in and out is steady and festive. A little white auto train snakes down to the port landing to retrieve visitors. One receives the impression everywhere, even among the solitary fishermen on the pier, that life is good here.
After lunch we boarded our chartered “Le Petit Train” for a short tour. The view out to sea from the cliffs above was quite spectacular, though the stroll through the town was the most fun. The streets are very narrow—garbage trucks are the size of small vans, and cars can make only very slow progress through crowds of milling pedestrians. Our spirited guide Julia pointed out many features as she recited Bonifacio’s history: founded by Boniface I, Count of Tuscany, the town came under the rule of several states—Pisa, then Genoa, then France, then Italy, then France again. Today, everyone speaks French and looks Italian. We visited a small 12th-century church, which appeared somewhat the worse for wear—flaking plaster on the walls and paintings coated with centuries of candle smoke—then emerged to a view of well-tanned youth sipping beverages in the sunshine and enjoying the fellowship of the eternal present. The farthest point of the tour was a small promontory of houses, the extreme of which is owned by the famous French actress Catherine Deneuve, who is said to advertise her presence by opening her shutters. The shutters were closed, Julia explained, because the distinguished actress was back in Paris. Julia gazed at the house as if missing a favorite aunt. For the rest of the afternoon, we wandered about on our own, window shopping or strolling back to the ship to enjoy the view from the Callisto’s deck.
The Captain’s reception and dinner began at 7:00 pm. W&L travelers made a fine appearance for the affair, though Captain Yiannis Stupakis arrived late and seemed uncomfortable with his English. But the night was balmy and the declining light showed golden on the cliffs of Bonifacio. The Captain sat amiably at his table, but had little to say before dashing off at the end of the main course to return to his charts. Over dessert, we celebrated Chippy Holladay’s birthday, then ventured out onto the deck for drinks and conversation. The Callisto released her lines at 10:00 and sailed from port through the Bonifacio fjord and out again to a sea shining under the brilliant moon. It had been a good day all around.
Why did Napoleon leave this lovely abode on the Tyrrhenian Sea? The question must have occurred to us more than once today, for Elba is certainly among the most beautiful, eminently habitable islands in the world. Here in exile, though nonetheless beloved by the island’s citizens, Napoleon could call himself Emperor. He was the sovereign of all that he could see: the largest of the seven islands of the Tuscan Archipelago, a place of scenic mountains and beaches, so rich in minerals it was known throughout the ancient world for its vast deposits of iron ore as well as other useful rocks, lush with vineyards and cool forests, with a balmy climate virtually year round. What better could the troublesome conquest of Europe offer? Didn’t one advance in life, even if it were to conquer nations, so that one could eventually find such a place to spend one’s declining years? What was it that drove him back to the continent? It may have been his sister Paolina, who, according to our guide Marta, earned the nickname “the Great Horizontal” here. Napoleon himself was “vertically challenged,” but the horizontal referred to neither height nor girth in Paolina’s case; rather, to certain proclivities that made her popular with men. Poor Napoleon. Unable to control his sister, perhaps he chose to assemble an army in search of more manageable challenges.
After crossing the sea between Corsica and Elba, our first stop on this fair day was at Golfo Stella for another splash of swimming. Though slow in setting forth, actually several more than yesterday took the plunge. Thereafter, we idled about the small bay for a couple of hours, basking in the sunshine and surveying the beaches and other boats with shared binoculars. A German couple on a nearby sailboat afforded us a rare study of the human anatomy, as they enjoyed their morning skinny dip. As the morning deepened, we raised anchor and set out for the other side of the island. At 11:00, Miriam gave another talk on Roman history, this time focusing more on the life of Octavian, later called Caesar Augustus, Julius Caesar’s nephew and successor. Her theme embarked with the question of what several of our founding fathers may have learned in studying Roman precedents, as Roman democracy devolved into an imperial state ruled by a dictator. The talk combined biography with excellent illustrations of her subjects through Roman busts and coins. It must be acknowledged that Cleopatra was something of a disappointment physically, though she must have possessed qualities not easily translated into coinage.
When the curtains of the lounge were reopened, we found ourselves in Portoferraio, Elba’s oldest town. After another fine luncheon buffet, we met our guide Marta and set out on a walking tour of the town. The port dates back to Greek and Roman times, though the fortifications that help to give it an antique flavor were put into place by the 16th-century Tuscan duke Cosimo de Medici, who sought to protect his town, then called Cosmopolis, from the Saracen pirates. The port was well known then and only until very recently for its production of iron—hence the name “Port of Iron.” But our principal objective, as we climbed through the town’s picturesque winding streets, was Portoferraio’s most famous resident, Napoleon. We first visited the Vigilante Theater, a former church that Napoleon had converted into a lovely little theater, complete with several rows of tiered balconies. We took our seats in the comfortable auditorium and listened at length to Marta’s colorful narration of Napoleon’s life on Elba.
Thereafter, we carried on up the sloping streets to Napoleon’s little palace, Villa dei Mulini, a structure more closely resembling a Tuscan villa than a French palace. The home is airy with its location on the ridge overlooking the town to the south and a high cliff falling to the sea to the north. Today, the villa is furnished sparely with a few charming Napoleonic pieces in each room, though the library and the decoration of the walls in tromp d’oille are impressive. The villa’s central ballroom on the second floor is a lovely room full of light. A bust of Napoleon at 31 and Paolina as an ageless goddess flank the room. The room’s sole piece of furniture is a stately canopy bed, too large, Marta explained, for any of the rooms below. A few small rooms off the ballroom display documents signed by Napoleon, along with a few French Napoleonic clocks, mementos to the passage of time. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the residence is the view from the wall beyond the garden, where we shot many photographs from a dizzying height to the bay below. It was also daunting to realize that we had ascended on foot all the way from port to this elevation.
We then ambled back down to the town and boarded a waiting coach for a driving tour of the Island. Here again, we were enchanted by the many scenic views of Elba and the Mediterranean as the road wound up through forested slopes and down to Porto Azzuro, a lovely little port town perhaps most notable to tourists for its mineral museum and shop. We strolled about for a happy hour, poking into shops and enjoying a gelato on the pedestrian mall, before re-boarding our bus. On returning to Portoferraio, we had the choice of dining on the Callisto or in town. Eight chose the latter and reported that they were not disappointed. Others postponed their adventure, choosing the Callisto chef’s best effort yet and then enjoying a stroll among the many shops and galleries lining the port frontage. There was much to see here in the balmy night air, including two enormous yachts moored with their sterns to the harbor wall. Dining and dancing without inhibition on the aft decks, their owners and guests well proved the pleasures of the Mediterranean’s sybaritic life.
The sun was sleepy this morning as we pulled into the port of Viareggio. A thin overcast turned the crowded dockyard into a study in grays. A few fishermen sat languidly on the piers between large yachts and cabin cruisers, dropping their lines from long poles into the still water. For the most part, the world seemed still asleep, at least that portion of it that was not intent on touring. We rose early this morning. An hour or so later, fortified by breakfast and gazing upward to assess whether we needed protection from the elements, we gathered on the aft deck of the Callisto, ready for our full day’s excursion to Lucca. By departure at 8:30, patches of blue were breaking through. By the time we arrived in Lucca 35 minutes later, the sky was clear. It would be another fine day in Paradise.
For those who have visited Tuscany, Lucca remains a favorite town. With the possible exception of Siena, Lucca is Italy’s best expression of the medieval world. Built on the remains of a Roman town, Lucca has successfully resisted modern architecture. Most of the buildings date from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The streets are narrow and unforgiving to automotive traffic. The latest effort at historical preservation is a town-wide removal of plaster from the external walls of structures built of stone or brick. It is the new law, explained Carlo, our Lucca guide. “Italy does not have many laws, but those they have—how you say?—are hard.”
The two-hour walking tour of Lucca was a delight, for we quickly fell into the embrace of the town and its history. Our strolls along the town’s close corridors were relieved periodically by piazzas lined with venerable sycamores or dominated by towering churches. The first such square, though airy, was sweetly intimate. It featured the life-sized bronze of the town’s most famous native son, Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). Traditionally regarded as the most lyrical among the renowned opera composers, Puccini was a two-pack-a-day smoker and eventually died of throat cancer. The statue has him seated with casual dignity on a lounge chair, with a cigarette dangling from his hand.
The Piazza San Michele is given over to the 13th-century Romanesque church dedicated to the angel who drove Lucifer into hell. On the exceedingly elaborate façade are images of all the beasts of the world as known in the 13th century—and a few known only to perverse imaginations. Carlo explained that at this time of pervasive illiteracy the church wanted to assure its parishioners that these frightful creatures would remain safely outside the sanctuary. Inside, he continued, “they would find only Jesus.” The outside of St. Michele’s is quite fanciful, with a myriad array of unique columns set in ranks up the entire façade and a 15-foot rendition of the archangel Michael at the top festooned with wings whose copper feathers once fluttered in the wind. The interior, however, is rather gloomy. A flat, medieval figurative depiction of Christ on the cross greets the visitor in the sanctuary. To the right, one can find a fine painting of a grouping of four saints by Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469). The intense colors of the painting offer some relief from the shadows.
We also visited the Cathedral of San Martino, another Romanesque façade, though the body of the church was later developed in the Gothic style. Here under the lofty corbelled ceiling the stained glass windows were larger and the interior more inviting. But it was such a fine day outside that we could not bear to linger here. From the Piazza San Martino we wandered farther down the narrow streets of Lucca. We passed a number of accordion players, swaying and nimbly fingering tunes familiar to us. We strolled along Via Fillungo, Lucca’s toniest shopping district until we came to the Piazza Amfiteatro in front of a former Roman amphitheater. Today the structure is a curiosity, for all that remains of the amphitheater is its oval shape: the entire structure is now a mall of shops and residences. In Lucca, little of the Roman period, beyond the foundation of the fortification wall, remains. It was as if Lucca had decided that 900 years of civic history were sufficient and left it at that.
Carlo gave us an hour for shopping and independent browsing. Some returned to watch passersby and await lunch at the Bucca San Antonio Restaurant, just off the Piazza San Michele. Others shopped the windows of expensive stores displaying the latest in Italian fashion. Kay Mann found a straw hat to balance the effect of Doug’s. Steve and Monica Case, possessed of inextinguishable energy, chose to climb the 228 steps of the Torre Guinigi. The lofty medieval observation tower is crowned by a couple of trees that long ago took root in the accumulated dust at the top. Located at the western end of the original Roman town, the tower affords a magnificent view of Lucca—a labyrinth of tiled roofs from this elevation—and the hazy distances beyond.
We met again at 1:30 for a splendid lunch at Bucca San Antonio. We had made our entree selection a day earlier of either goat or grouper, a curious choice. We were well feted in the close quarters of the dining room below the entrance. The pasta was delicious, the goat somewhat tough, the grouper slender though savory in its sauce, and the “typical cake” happily filled with ice cream. We had fun commenting on the local wines. It was declared that the white had a blush of peach at the front, apricot in the middle, and a trailing banner of apple at the finish—a wine confident though not arrogant. The red was less successful: more green than red, devoid of nose, so tannic that it was declared “Satanic,” a wine that left on the palate only the memory of its initial violence. It was exchanged for another red with a much brighter nose, though in character utterly without depth, rather like a tour host: friendly but careful to avoid any distinction.
Our final visit on this day took us into the lovely suburban neighborhoods and hills surrounding Lucca to Massa Macinaia, a beautifully maintained villa and gardens. The house and surrounding buildings were restored by two American men, Paul Gervais and Gil Cohen, who bought the place in 1982. Several years ago, the pair chose also to become gardeners. Massa Macinaia is the subject of a fine coffee table book, A Garden in Lucca. W&L had visited the place five years ago on another tour of Tuscany. It was a stop so memorable that we decided to recommend it to Travel Dynamics for the present tour. After climbing the long entrance drive, we were met politely by Mr. Cohen, a rather pale, soft-spoken gentleman, who then led us around the grounds, identifying various plants and shrubs to those fortunate to be standing near him. Massa Macinaia is truly marvelous, and the two-bedroom guest quarters with pool would be quite wonderful for a week at $3,300. But always at the margins of such heavenly places lurks chaos. An electric fence had been strung to keep out the wild boars, and on this day the sky resounded with the roar of several helicopters sent out to extinguish a forest fire smoking over a ridge a mere half mile away.
We returned to the Callisto at 4:45 and spent the remainder of the afternoon at leisure. The rest was welcome. Some took late naps as a form of refreshment. Dinner this evening was a barbecue prepared by Tasos and the chef outside, though by the dinner hour the air had cooled sufficiently to discourage our plans to dine on the deck. Nonetheless it was a fine meal in good fellowship once again. We were pleased to know that we would be spending this night tied up in the harbor. Many looked forward to a prolonged sleep and retired early. The rest of our group mingled on the aft deck or watched Margo’s movie Mondovino, a comic documentary about the globalization of wine, in the lounge. By midnight, all was quiet under the Tuscan moon.
Near our berth in the harbor stood the lighthouse of Viareggio, its revolving beacon flashing slowly like the beat of a sleeping heart. Beneath it on the pier perched on a trailer of twenty wheels stood the shell of a large cabin cruiser, ready for transfiguration, virginal white, unlettered, devoid of all content, a pure expression of the lines men have devised for mastery of the sea. How long would it wait for its completion and assumed purpose, for its entrance into service and the first passage of a voyage into the unknown lifespan of ships? It was another version of the old question, one just as unanswerable now as then—“How long, O Lord?” It was an image to sleep on. For now, the empty vessel sat in wait, suspended in air above a line of tires, bow up to the stars. In the night, the moon seemed to give it a glow of inner light.
We remained at berth in the harbor of Viareggio through the night. Originally, the operations itinerary called for a departure at 5:00 a.m., but apparently the Callisto could not get permission to leave at that hour. At 6:00 Captain Stupakis fired his engines, warming them for departure, but no harbor pilot was in sight. Meanwhile, a score of stoical fishermen lining the piers hunkered down in their solitude, watching their long rods. If we could put Italian-English into their whiskered faces, we would hear them say, “Steel no feesh.”
Finally, at 6:30, two rather disheveled pilots arrived in their little boat and clambered up onto the pier. They released the lines as Captain Stupakis stood at the rail outside the bridge, glowering. Once the boat was free, he eased the vessel backwards slowly from its tight moorage into the dead calm of the harbor lane, coming to within inches of a row of obviously expensive sailboats. The harbor pilots waved their arms with increasing vigor, shouting to the Captain until finally he reversed his engines. The sailboats bobbed and chattered in the Callisto’s wash. Captain Stupakis had taken his revenge.
We sailed north under low clouds toward Portofino. After breakfast, Miriam gave us another talk on ancient Rome, this time on “Public Spectacles in the Roman World,” focusing especially on amphitheaters. She made excellent use of slides of mosaics depicting the “rules of the game”—mainly in gladiatorial contests but also in the execution of criminals for sport. Much of her talk brought to mind the inherent cruelty of Imperial Rome, especially after the period of Augustus, when the deaths of thousands of wild animals, slaves, criminals, and Christians were turned into sport. Under the policy of “Bread and Circuses,” the citizens of Rome and other imperial towns were freely entertained by the macabre. “The Romans were really cruel as a people,” she admitted, “but I seem to have a simultaneous repulsion and attraction to them. Who knows why?”
The sky began clearing as we neared our swimming stop at San Fruttuoso along the cliffs of the Italian Riviera north of the Bay of the Poets. For reasons we were not privy to, Captain Stupakis was unable to get permission to drop anchor here, so we pushed on a good distance past Portofino all the way to Genoa. Here in Genoa’s broad bay, we were able to enjoy several minutes in the cool Mediterranean. However, not long after we had dropped anchor we heard a loud explosion in the center of the city, then several more. A huge plume of white smoke rose behind a wall of buildings. More reports followed. Soon we saw hundreds of people lined up along the beach or perched on apartment balconies. We were at a loss to understand what was happening. Then, several minutes later, another fusillade of explosions erupted along the sea wall, signaling the beginning of a remarkable mid-day fireworks display. Though jolting in its deafening commotion, it put our mind at ease that the original explosions had to be part of some festivity. The tremendous racket continued for a good fifteen minutes, with loud, colored smoke explosions, sparkling showers, whistling rockets, and a final cataclysm of high impact ka-booms resounding across the harbor and down along the echoing cliffs facing the sea. We later learned that the fireworks were part of a religious festival commemorating St. Mary of the Mercies. The Italians are fond of expressive gestures, and even in appealing for mercy they use them emphatically.
We arrived in Portofino after lunch. The most famous and picturesque of the port towns along the Italian Riviera, Portofino surrounds a narrow harbor notched into a peninsula of high cliffs that help define the Golfo del Tigullio. The town itself is quite small and colorful, with a line of seven and eight-story buildings, each with its own shade of ochre, umber, or sienna, crowded together just beyond the harbor walk. Rising immediately behind and above these are forested slopes dotted with luxurious villas and hotels. In the harbor and just beyond, scores of yachts, some of them so large and luxurious that they resemble small cruise ships, rest at anchor, their owners either shopping in the town’s many fashionable boutiques or just idling away the time in Paradise. It’s all just a little too much.
We disembarked for our local tour by small pontoon tender at 2:30. Antonella, a thirty-something guide with strong legs and a microphone, met us on the harbor walk. In negotiating the high steps of the quay, Jane Hollis took a short tumble, badly bruising her shin. After being attended by Margo and friends, she and several others, realizing the challenge of a walking tour of Portofino and the heights beyond, wisely decided to spend the next couple of hours at an outdoor café in the harbor square. The rest of us pushed on through the town’s little business district, noting bits of Portofino’s long history as a fishing village. That accomplished, we began the steep climb up a narrow lane of the promontory to the Church of St. George, the Brown Castello, and the lighthouse. The views were spectacular—indeed somewhat breath-taking. We paused at several intervals to snap photos and recover our breath. Along the way, we noticed several gates leading to posh villas, among them a large array of lodgings for the families of the famous Italian designers Dolce and Gabbana. How they got their furniture and groceries up the path puzzled us for a bit until Antonella explained that a tunnel and an elevator lay deep within the rock of the promontory. At this level of Italian high life, all things were possible.
At the end of our tour, tireless Steve and Monica Case decided to explore the nearby town of Santa Margherita Ligure while the rest of us rejoined our companions at the café. Over the next hour or so, we enjoyed a gelato, wine, or beer and the leisurely passage of colorful pedestrians. Time passed well in this beautiful place. There was always something to lay our eyes and mind on, each of us, perhaps, imagining for a moment a different life for ourselves. The tender called at 5:00 and then again at 6:00 for our reluctant returns to the more familiar comforts of the Callisto.
This evening we had our assigned seating dinner, with couples and friends separated and seated at different tables. As is customary on W&L trips with a seated dinner, the occasion was the noisiest of our evenings thus far. The conversation grew in intensity as we each became individuals again, stimulated by new acquaintance, telling our favorite stories to new friends. By the end of dinner, Tasos, a patient man, had waited a long time to begin clearing and setting the tables for tomorrow’s breakfast.
We arrived noisily in the busy harbor of Nice at 6:30 this morning, a different day, a different country, a different culture. At this hour, the largest city of the French Riviera seemed, on the whole, rather indifferent to our presence. The waterfront area of Nice gave off the impression of a French maitre d’ to whom we had come too close. He was very busy, comme d’habitude, regardless of our solicitations. The high and close buildings surrounding the harbor seemed to gaze out to sea as if they were studying further commerce that would somehow have to be accommodated. Meanwhile, a huge ferry bound for Corsica churned our slip with wash from its giant propellers, seemingly annoyed that we had made its exit more bothersome than need be. We had come a long way from the sweet and sunny openness of Italian ports.
But we were here, and we would make the best of it. The weather, at least, promised to be fair and warm. Our guide for the day, a voluble Frenchwoman named Agnes, hastened us onto the coach at 8:30, worried about the traffic. She wore her left arm in a cast from a recent injury. We wondered if she were accident prone. Agnes would be our guide for the day, beginning with our tour of the Maeght Foundation in the hills above Nice (“the backlands,” Agnes called them) and then on to nearby St.-Paul-de-Vence. The drive was virtually traffic-free, taking much less time than she had scheduled, so we arrived at the museum thirty minutes prior to its opening, despite a long climb by foot on the roadway leading to the entrance. The early arrival presented no difficulty to Agnes, who launched into a ready lecture on the collection and its principal artists while we stood or sat about the gate area. Meanwhile, the stout entrance attendant, torso by Leger, enjoyed a private smoke. Like the cigarette, the lecture helped to pass the time well enough. What we would come to understand about the Maeght Foundation was actually quite inspiring.
Established in 1964 by Aime and Marguerite Maeght with works by Miro, Braque, Chagall, Giacometti, Calder, and Leger, among others, the Maeghts found a way through their foundation both to promote and sustain the artists represented in their marvelous collection. “What is promoted and preserved within its walls,” states the Museum catalog, “is the idea of art and humanism. Its originality will always lie in having been able to unite the talents of a generation in order to create an open-minded, peaceful, meditative place where people are made welcome.” The complex itself, built in the 1960s, is architecturally cunning, with looping rooflines designed to collect rainwater in a dry climate. Much of the collection is sculpture exhibited on lush green lawns or fountain patios. Most of this is fairly whimsical, but the overall effect is a pleasurable stroll past art that is not about the agony and ecstasy of its creation but rather wholly new and amusing figurations of life. Indoors, the Maeght had a special exhibition called “Black Is a Color Also,” but Agnes did not encourage our interest. “I don’t know anything about this period,” she explained. We toured the grounds for about an hour with Agnes, enjoying also the lofty pines throughout the property, their lines and color seeming all the more graceful and pure. Finally, we broke off from meandering through this happy place to take a few minutes in the bookstore before heading down the drive again.
Our next stop was the walled hilltop village of St.-Paul-de-Vence, a popular tourist stop for those driving through the area. It is unarguably photogenic. A perfect little fortified civic enclosure with a commanding view of the surrounding valleys and the French Alps further back in the “Backlands,” St.-Paul-de-Vence traces its history back 3,000 years to the ancient Ligurians. Its impressive ramparts still well intact go back to the 16th century. We took a long walk up to the entrance gate, which is dominated by a fixed cannon pointed at all arrivals, then strolled the narrow passage of the village’s main street—lots of trendy stores and galleries here, along with a very elegant restaurant, Le Colom d’Or, which Jody Powell and the Bents recalled having enjoyed on previous visits. The stroll was lovely. The sun shone brightly on the cobbled lane, a single street musician performed on the mini-square at the town center, and the paintings and artwork along the way seemed to make everything bright and festive. We continued to the cemetery at the far end of town to pay homage to the tomb of Marc Chagall, which also contains the mortal remains of his wife and brother-in-law. The slab was covered with many small stones left by Jewish pilgrims, as Chagall was Jewish. How wonderfully fitting that the Russian-born Chagall would choose to live and be buried here, for the village itself seemed a perfect frame for a life of whimsy. The panorama from the wall above the cemetery was quite spectacular—why is it that cemeteries often end up with a town’s most prized real estate?
Following an hour or so for shopping and further exploration, we returned to Nice, pausing for a short visit at a remarkable Russian Orthodox Church in the city’s Russian section, then back to the Callisto for lunch. Ninety minutes later we were off again for a 3:00 p.m. appointment at the Matisse Museum. Our visit was delayed about thirty minutes after our driver Bernard clipped—or was clipped by—a Porsche driven by a middle-aged Frenchman wearing red shorts. The Porsche driver was accompanied by a tall, much younger blonde, who proved to be quite outspoken. Long arguments ensued, Bernard making the more pronounced gesticulations aimed mainly at the driver. Agnes did not want to risk upsetting Bernard further by reminding him of our appointment. Finally at an impasse, the drivers resorted to the completion of the necessary insurance forms carried by bus drivers. We later learned that damages for all such accidents in France are evenly divided, regardless of who is at fault. Agnes, who doesn’t own a car, advised us never to drive around the Arc de Triomphe.
The accident proved to be the most exciting event of the afternoon, as the Matisse Museum houses mostly Matisse’s personal collection. Most interesting perhaps were the paintings recording his evolution as a painter, as he moved from early still life painting influenced by the Dutch Masters through Impressionism and Fauvism until he arrived at his own particular celebration of color and movement. The Museum itself is an old villa that Matisse identified in his late years as suitable for housing his personal collection after his death. At that point in his long life in Nice (he was plagued by rheumatism) he lived in the nearby Palace Hotel, which had been built for Queen Victoria—for decades Nice was the favored destination among well-heeled Brits impatient for spring. Following a weary hour in the airless, rather dim interior of the museum we returned to our coach through a park full of olive trees, some of them, according to Agnes, over 300 years old. Here also were children playing and adults of all ages engaged in games of bocce. Final wishes aside, it seemed likely that Matisse, whose art celebrates movement and color, would have had us spend more time here.
On the trip home, some of the group decided to take up Agnes’ invitation to tour Nice’s Old Town. Others broke off for the walk back to the ship along the long promenade separating the beach from the city. Agnes never stopped talking, except to answer her phone, which had a ringer sounding the chatter of birds.
All of us were back aboard by 7:00 p.m. A few had followed individual pursuits late in the afternoon, among them Chris Hutchins, who had spent some time in the antique district looking for Rolls Royce hood ornaments fashioned by Lalique. There are 76 altogether, he explained, of which he has acquired 37 at this point. Now there is a collection! At 7:30 p.m., the Callisto cast off its tethers. As we pulled away from Nice, we enjoyed another splendid dinner in the gentle pitch and roll of the sea. Margo regaled us with a series of terrific jokes during the cruise briefing over dessert. By the time we had finished coffee, the moon had risen modestly through a haze of cloud, though with enough light to lay down her veil on the sea. Well on our way to Marseille, we watched the light dance on the waves off the stern.
The second law of travel programming is that fortune constantly seeks a state of equilibrium. In other words, one must be prepared to give back to fortune a little something of what she has already generously granted. Thus far on the trip, we had been blessed by great destinations, excellent guides, terrific weather, wonderful group dynamics, safety and health, and generally smooth operations based on sound information. Not all good things continue unabated, of course, and the law states that this is as it should be.
Our arrival in Marseille was trouble-free. The oldest city in France and one of the Mediterranean’s busiest ports, Marseille has a handsome harbor for ships such as ours. Actually, Marseille has at least four harbors, one for smaller commercial vessels, one for private yachts—who often come to Marseille for repair, one for enormous cruise ships, and one for petrochemicals and other hard trade. The entrance into the Vieux Port (Old Port), which we accomplished by 7:00, affords some magnificent views. The bay includes the island on which stands the 16th-century castle Chateau d’If, which became a prison made famous by Alexander Dumas in The Count of Monte Christo. In the distance overlooking the harbor is the soaring edifice of a church named Notre Dame de la Garde with its tall spire topped by a golden statue of the Virgin Mary. It is the church most revered by men who make their living at sea. In the harbor itself are two prominent structures, the Cathedral de la Major, an enormous green and white limestone church built in the early 19th century, and an ancient fort that dates back to the 14th century.
Marseille itself traces its history back to 600 B.C., when Greek traders landed on these shores and then decided to linger. Legend has it that the daughter of a local chieftain selected as her fiancé one of the Greeks, who apparently was either similarly smitten or otherwise acting on strict orders not to disappoint the maiden. A wedding ensued, after which the chieftain granted the couple three hills as his daughter’s dowry and his commitment to protect them. Even Greeks knew that you don’t test a father-in-law’s promise of protection. The port of Marsalia grew from that moment in time and passed through several incarnations. A low period occurred after Marseille sided with Pompey in his internecine war with Caesar, during which Arles sided with Caesar. The victorious Caesar made Arles great while Marseille subsequently languished. In recent times, Marseille has taken advantage of its excellent position as the preferred seaport for Central European goods and services, both exported and imported. Life is good here.
Margo and I met our guide Nathalie just before the group was scheduled to disembark for our day of touring Arles and Les Baux. A slender, athletic woman of perhaps thirty years, Nathalie may suffer from an excess of energy, for she seems to have a nervous constitution, one that compels her to keep moving and interferes somewhat with her ability to answer questions precisely. The main challenge of this busy day would be timing, for we planned to include visits to two towns, each of which presented several potential delays. In Arles, we would be visiting during the final day of the Feria du Riz, a major festival of the bulls. Margo was frustrated at not getting altogether reliable information on distances and times. In asking about the main event of our visit to Arles, I once again received assurance that the bullfight at the amphitheater would be bloodless. “Oh, no, ze French do not keel ze bulls.” You go on what you have.
The 75-minute drive to Arles was pleasant enough with a decent account of the history and economics of the region, though Nathalie eventually noticed that folks were nodding off. She wisely decided to allow the final thirty minutes for napping. Arriving in Arles, we walked along a central avenue whose pavement, Nathalie explained, had been cordoned off by temporary fencing for the running of the bulls (it turned out to be for horse racing). Nathalie sent us to a park near Arles’s amphitheater while she purchased tickets. Seated on benches and the stone wall of the fountain, we took advantage of the wait to hear from Miriam on Hannibal and the Roman wars with Carthage. Although she had left her notes on the bus, it was a fine impromptu performance. But as fate would have it, during the most moving part of the talk—Scipio’s thoughts on the fall of Carthage—a nearby Dixieland Jazz band launched into a rousing rendition of “Hello Dolly.”
Nathalie pointed out our lunch restaurant Le Calendral, then brought us to another street cordoned off for running bulls. This one, indeed, had a young bull on the loose intent on elevating any boy or young man available—several had tested their courage by climbing momentarily inside the barriers. We then returned to the Amphitheater, where we went through a French waltz (100 steps to the left, 100 steps to the right) in trying to find our entrance gate. The Amphitheater is quite impressive: built during the second century A.D. to accommodate 26,000 spectators, it continues to serve as an arena for various pageants during the year. Unlike Rome, abundant local quarries have supplied the citizens of Arles over the centuries with sufficient stone for their own buildings. Thus, the Amphitheater shows only the ravages of time and not pillage. Our seats on naked stone were actually comfortable.
The bullfight began with a flourish of trumpets and the arrival of two picadors astride beautifully groomed grays. Then the band struck up “The March of the Toreadors” with the arrival of the entire company of performers. After much show of ritual, during which the company was blessed by the official of the ring, the performers repaired to their individual stations. A magnificent bull glistening black and brown entered the arena in a huff, ready for mayhem. Several of the toreadors, each wearing colorful costumes with tight pants and huge capes took turns at taunting the bull, who charged each of them, reliably butting the cape instead of his provocateur. The crowd seemed well informed of when to applaud the special twirls performed by the fighters. Over several minutes of this frustration, the bull seemed to tire somewhat. Then the matador, seemingly taller and more elegantly postured than his colleagues, made his entrance with great fanfare. Also entering the arena were two picadors with long pikes and heavily padded and blindfolded horses. This was not looking good for the bull. After several elaborate passes with the bull, the matador alternately waving a cape over the bull then striding provocatively away with his back to the bull—Go, Bull!—the toreadors began to run at the bull, impaling two spikes on the bull’s hump. At several points the bull charged one of the picadors, only to be further wounded by deep prods of the long pike. Over the next several minutes, the bull bled profusely from his wounds. With the bull tiring rapidly, the matador then retrieved his sword from the wall of the arena, had it blessed by the official, and returned with a simple red cape to torment the bull further. After prolonged further agitation, during which several in our number wisely chose to depart, the matador, sensing the entertainment had come to an end, buried the sword up to the hilt in the bull’s hump. The bull, now sluggish, staggered several steps toward the official and went down on his knees before being rolled over to his back. Some members of the crowd whistled. Evidently, this is not good for the bullfighter, for the bull is supposed to fall instantly. Other violence was done to the bull before his corpse was ignominiously dragged from the arena, again by two elaborately festooned horses done up for the pageant. The bullfighter then strutted around the area, gathering what adulation he could from the crowd. As in ancient times, he had performed the ritual provision of meat for the masses.
We all left the arena well before our appointed lunch. Some of us took a wander through the old town of Arles with Nathalie, who expressed as much surprise as we did over the preceding event. At our luncheon buffet, a somewhat more somber affair than previous meals, we had to choose between fish and marinated bull. Most chose the former. Miriam mused that the bullfight had, at the very least, given us a vivid glimpse of the level of violence favored by the ancient Romans. It would have been an excellent teaching device for her W&L students. Thereafter, we took some time for independent shopping—Nancy Brown innocently requested a “bull shirt” from some sidewalk vendors before being discouraged by her closest auditors. Then we walked through the crowded, festive streets of Arles toward our coach and the drive to Les Baux. Unfortunately, the coach’s air-conditioning system had broken down, so we made the drive to Les Baux in the full heat of day.
Our first stop in Les Baux was a limestone quarry area that afforded a marvelous view of the hilltop village. We enjoyed the fresh air along with the photo op, then toured one of the quarries that has been converted into a wine cellar and shop. It was wonderfully cool here. The subsequent visit to Les Baux proved immediately that the town is a favorite tourist destination. Two groups from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship were loudly on hand, along with visitors from several foreign countries. The limestone town is quite picturesque and fun to walk through, though difficult at times from the steepness of the streets and the closeness of the crowds. Several in our group went on to the Citadel, from which they had a commanding view of the valley.
On the way home, we suffered again from the heat, even with the coach’s hatches open. Nathalie directed our driver Robert to take the faster route home via the super highway. Traffic back to Marseille was easy at first, then slowed to some bumper to bumper delays. Nathalie came on the P.A. system from time to time, once to explain at length the many “virarities” of olive trees until we could bear no more without correction—“varieties,” we explained. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “I must say it several times in my shower in ze morning.” An amusing image.
We were late returning from this tough day—even the pier parking lot suffered a traffic jam, as Murphy’s Law required that a car be parked illegally in the path of a required turn. But once we were back on the Callisto and showered, our spirits lifted again. Captain Stupakis scheduled our departure from Marseille just before sunset. The cruise from port out past the islands and into the Gulf of Lions was quite beautiful. At sunset, we enjoyed a wonderful Greek feast for dinner, then celebrated the Hutchins’ 46th wedding anniversary. Margo had more jokes. All was forgiven.
This was a much easier day for us, beginning with a swimming stop at Cala de Joncois during which most folks felt no obligation to partake, due to the presence of jellyfish. During the anchoring process, Captain Stupakis retrieved an empty zodiac dinghy, which had most likely blown loose from a yacht the night before. Maritime law gave him salvage rights, especially since there were no registration numbers on the pontoons, so with a shrug he hoisted it aboard. But a mute sea invites mystery. It was not difficult to imagine other scenarios: a sunken yacht, a lovers’ suicide, or some hapless scuba diver finally surfacing from his dive only to discover that his dinghy had come loose from its anchorage and drifted away.
We spent a welcome morning at leisure, enjoying a lecture from Miriam at 11:00 on “Roman Erotica.” She had a full house. The upshot of the talk was that Romans celebrated sex, glorified the penis, and revered ample nudity in women, though women who were proper Roman citizens were always modestly attired in public. Once again, she made effective use of slides depicting images in Roman mosaics, frescos, sculpture, and coin. Many of the illustrations presented the Roman understanding of “homo erectus,” with the male member, sometimes as large as a wheelbarrow or other garden implements, engaged in acrobatic performances. As has been Miriam’s custom throughout the trip, she “brought it all home” at the end by suggesting that, like Paris, London, and Washington, W&L has itself extended the Roman fondness for obelisks, which are clearly phallic, and that the campus streetlamps display not one but two phalli on each standard.
Following another fabulous lunch, we met our guide for the afternoon tour, Margarita, a trim, blonde Catalonian who appeared in a tee-shirt reading “No Trash in My Life.” “Trash” was by far the largest of the words. Was this use of a message shirt directed at us, or was she simply making a friendly gesture by adorning herself with the English language? As it turned out, Margarita was no trash talker, for she was well organized, clear, and informed throughout. She would enrich our first day in Spain and our visit to the Dali Museum in Figueres with the dry sincerity of a native intent on giving us the essentials.
As we drove from Roses to Figueres, Margarita narrated the life and artistic career of Salvador Dali (1904-1989), who was born and raised in Figueres. A large part of her narrative was devoted to Dali’s long attachment to Gala, the wife of a close friend who became his inspiration, companion, lover, and later his own wife. Gala was ten years older than Dali, who was devoted to her and quite bereft after her passing in 1982.
The Dali Museum must rank among the world’s most bizarre museums, as Dali himself does among the world’s artists. The museum was created in 1961 by Dali from a theater ruined by fire. In announcing his project, Dali said, “I want my museum to be like a single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object. It will be a totally theatrical museum. The people who come to see it will leave with a sensation of having had a theatrical dream.” The art of the Dali Museum does indeed begin with the building, which is red in color and covered with a symmetrical pattern of sculpted bread loaves, which are attached to the walls. An enormous geodesic dome—designed to resemble the eye of a fly, an insect favored by Dali because it could see in three dimensions—covers the burnt out shell of the original stage, which itself is dominated by a stupendous surrealist canvas depicting the upper torso of a nude woman, said to be Gala, with a cracked bald pate.
Everywhere one gazes in the museum one sees Dali’s fantastic surrealist conceptions: sculptures fashioned in wholly unexpected amalgamations of objects, paintings that reveal Dali’s extraordinary draftsmanship and sense of color, and installations designed to trick the eye into seeing things, events, and people in new ways. Dali explored virtually every medium of the visual arts, and his obvious delight in artistic creativity is well presented throughout the museum. Also everywhere apparent is his favorite subject, Gala, who gazes back from several canvases in oddly disquieting ways—as if she had just asked her husband, “You want me to do what!?.” The museum also displays several of Dali’s early works, as he adapted various styles—impressionism, cubism, fauvism—employed by artists he favored. A long admirer of Picasso, Dali was most at home with surrealism, which allowed him the raw pleasure of odd image combinations, of provoking his observers, in their search for his meaning, into a contemplation of how such images or objects play off each other in dynamic new ways, new narratives. Miriam found special delight in Dali’s use of classical imagery that had been wrenched out of historical contexts and glommed on to contemporary narrative settings, an impulse not wholly at odds with her own teaching technique. The final surprise was Dali’s own tomb at the center of the building. Gala, who remains very much a part of the museum, is buried in the palace Dali bought for her twenty miles to the south. Very popular with tour groups from all over the world, the Dali Museum was a hit with our group. No one ducked out early.
Back again on the Callisto, we relaxed for awhile in the beautiful sunshine and the pleasure of each other’s company. At 6:30, we enjoyed a “hall party” thrown by the Texas Six—Ann and Wade Forbes, Cutler and Doug Crockard, and Liz and Woody Woodard. After another delicious and rather noisy dinner, Margo arrested our attention with a couple of jokes, one involving a pig and another a large-mouth frog, and then summarized our final day ahead. She also gave us a disembarkation briefing. There was some evidence in the room that the voyage was coming to an end.
We sailed from Roses shortly after sunset, bound for Barcelona. A small fleet of fishing boats had left the harbor not long before us, each of them towing a dinghy fitted with a lamp. The fish were running. We had noticed fishermen on the seawall finally happy to be catching something, in this case small fish, one after the other, flickering silver on hoisted lines. It had been a long wait. As we glided out of the harbor, we could see the lights of the little boats as the fishermen worked their nets, calling each to each in the dark. The sea would provide.
Our final full day began with our arrival in the large, open port of Barcelona at dawn. The architecture and monuments surrounding the port are quite impressive. An immense column at the head of the port is topped by a figure of Columbus, supposedly gesturing toward the New World, though Italians with a compass argue that his gesture is actually toward his birthplace in Italy. On his initial voyage, Columbus returned to Spain through Barcelona, having heard that Ferdinand and Isabella were visiting the city at the time. Flanking the column, the Port Authority building, a former hotel, and the Customs House offer a baroque welcome, while the ultra-modern “World Trade Center,” an inverted trapezoid office building and hotel located on our pier, reminds the visitor that Barcelona lives in the contemporary world. The north port was fairly empty of ships, which struck us as a curiosity, given the number of ships we had seen in previous ports. In the early light we could see that storm clouds had gathered to the southwest. Just after breakfast, it began to rain heavily, though the downpour was temporary.
We met our guide Amada at 9:00 a.m. for our tour of several of Barcelona’s most famous buildings, which is to say several buildings designed by Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926). After a general tour of the handsome city by coach, we visited Casa Batllo, one of Barcelona’s twelve Gaudi buildings. The house stands on what the citizens of Barcelona call “the Avenue of Disagreements,” due to the dramatically different architectural styles represented in neighboring buildings. At first sight, Gaudi’s style resembles Art Nouveau on acid, for while his structures incorporate continuously flowing lines his facades, walls, ceilings, and floors are intensely decorated with colors, patterns, and textures. There are few places to rest the eye. And yet as one moves through the entrance corridors and into the rooms, the combination of cleverness and aesthetic charm soon take hold.
The façade of the Batllo House, built for the family of Jose Batllo Casanovas from an existing apartment house in 1904-1906, is a visual circus, seemingly more appropriate for Disney World than urban habitation. But the interior, which affords a more intimate contact with Gaudi’s brilliant use of line, color, and function, is quite fascinating. Amada led us through the lower floors, which were reserved for the owners, pointing out the lovely staircase, the reception rooms, parlor, and dining room. Virtually every feature of the interior resists perpendicularity, even the window and door frames. The walls and ceilings undulate, the doors combine a handsome functionality with flowing wood grains and surfaces, and each room’s fixtures—even the most mundane—reflect a designer’s touch. We wondered what it must have been like to live in such a place. A couple of dated photographs showing two of the rooms furnished gave us a sense of habitation, and yet the furniture seemed overwhelmed by the action of walls and ceilings. As we toured the house, the rains returned, so we lingered for awhile in the house gift shop—the Batllo House is owned by an insurance company as an investment that surely must do well.
Leaving this Gaudi residence in a persistent shower, we next paused before La Pedrera, a larger apartment building designed by Gaudi in 1906-1910. Here again, the theme was undulation punctuated by various textural devices on the surface of the building. Most remarkable perhaps was Gaudi’s use of intensely elaborate cast iron balcony screens—iron made to look like huge strips of ripped and curling paper. One wonders what Gaudi’s building contractors thought.
We then drove to the Cathedral St. Eulailia in the Barrio Gotico, the heart of medieval Barcelona. Before entering this Gothic masterpiece, we strolled past some suggestive remnants of early Roman settlement, then ascended a narrow lane to gain access to the church. The soaring interior was full of shadows, despite the brilliance of the stained glass windows and the incandescent spotlights set high in the towers of the nave. Amada secured access to the Cathedral’s central choir through an iron gate, attended by a sexton keeping out the unfunded—this is about paying, not praying. The elaborately carved wooden choir chairs were very impressive, including the one done in ample proportions for use by a visiting King Henry VIII from England. Amada had us study one of the more opulent side chapels, given in the late 16th century by the shoe guild, whose fortunes no doubt came from those grown rich from the exploitation of the New World. The pervasive gold leaf seemed especially thick.
The visit to the Cathedral of St. Eulailia was in some ways strategic to our appreciation of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the Church of the Holy Family, which Gaudi began early in his career, 1883, and continued to work on for the rest of his life. For one thing, seeing it still many years from completion gave us a glimpse of what the citizens of the Middle Ages must have experienced as the great cathedrals of their towns and cities rose from generation to generation with painstaking slowness into the sky. Amada guessed that it might be finished in 30-40 years, depending on the generosity of citizens—the construction draws no funds from either the state or the Vatican. That would mean that the church would have a lifespan of construction extending at least 150 years. Gaudi’s fantastic extension of a church of Gothic dimensions is brilliantly conceived, though again the surface intensity and bizarre elaborations have given it something of the effect of an amusement park. At this point, eight of the bell towers, each of them soaring to over 350 feet high, have been completed, as have two of the gates. Work continues on the main gate and the roof. Work on the central tower, which rises to over 500 feet on the drawing board, has not yet begun, for no one has yet calculated how a bell tower of that height can be safely constructed.
Most of us followed Amada around the structure, while a few members of our group, either weary from our morning tour at this point or else simply uninterested in such ecclesiastical shenanigans, waited for us at an outdoor café. Especially poignant in the record of the church’s construction is one of the side galleries, finished during Gaudi’s lifetime and now grown dark with age. While Gaudi worked on the church virtually his entire career, he did take on other commissions in order to buy groceries. However, he was devoted fully to the project during his later years. He died in a pedestrian accident, fatally injured when struck by a tram. According to Amada, at the time of the accident, his dark suit was covered with plaster dust.
We took a welcome lunch back on the Callisto, our last full mid-day meal, and then with little time for rest re-boarded the coach for the afternoon portion of the tour. This included a drive into Montjuic (the hill of the Jews), which is now Barcelona’s most scenic civic park. Here also we viewed the various arenas and stadiums of the 1992 Olympic Games. At the top of Montjuic is Barcelona’s major art museum, the National Museum of Catalonian Art. The museum is housed in an enormous Baroque pavilion originally constructed for a world’s fair in the early 1930s and slated for destruction soon thereafter. The citizens of Barcelona quickly grew fond of the building and the striking panorama of the city below and so constructed a more solid foundation under the structure and made it a suitably monumental repository for their greatest art treasures. Amada’s tour of the museum concentrated primarily on Romanesque frescoes, not an especially endearing art, due to the inescapably long faces of the figures depicted in the holy groupings and the obvious fondness for depicting the bloody process of martyrdom. Some broke off at this point in search for more agreeable art, others tagged along for Amada’s foray into the early Renaissance—on the whole, not much brighter.
Leaving the museum after a view of the panoramas on either side of Montjuic, we returned to the Callisto shortly after 5:00 p.m. We used much of this time for packing, as we began to prepare for the trip home or a further extension in Barcelona. The Captain’s Farewell Reception and Dinner began at 6:30 with a rather light turnout. Gradually, we had nearly everyone on hand by the time for the group photo on the Callisto’s breezy stern and then dinner. The Houston Six got the Captain and, reportedly, managed to get a few words out of him before he ducked away again to work on his charts. The Callisto would be leaving for Tunisia on the following morning. Over dessert, we finally met the chef, the Callisto’s enormously popular mystery man, and applauded him roundly. It was then time for the “Historic Cities of the Sea” final exam. Questions had been distributed prior to dinner, each table receiving a choice of two. Each table elected a spokesperson, who stood in turn to present the table’s answer. Chris Hutchins stole the show with a remarkable impersonation—intended or otherwise—of W. C. Fields. For several minutes, following a few final remarks by Margo, we lingered in the room quietly, sharing quips and toasts across the room. Outside, a thunderstorm had come up, lightning flashed, and a thick curtain of rain, whipped by gale-like winds, waved across the harbor. The charmed weather of our cruise had come to a timely end, though we worried some about the ten who would be extending their stay here. And yet they would have their hotels—welcome space after the relatively close quarters of the Callisto.
Most of the group lingered further in the lounge, musing on the trip and exchanging long farewells. The Hutchins caught a taxi to their Barcelona hotel. Margo consented to another game of Scrabble with Chippy, Miriam, and me. Anne Forbes and Liz Woodard searched the room for one last bit of trouble. Outside the rain and lightning continued apace. The hard rain lasting through the night would make the news in Europe the next morning.
The six members of our Washington, DC group had our luggage outside our cabins at 6:30 a.m., then took breakfast, speculating on whether we would manage to get seats on the 9:30 instead of the 10:30 Air France flight to Paris, a departure that would give us more time to make our Dulles connection. As we left the Callisto, we learned that Margo had accidentally dropped her cell phone into the harbor while crossing the gangway to retrieve Amada from the customs terminal. We thought of this painful mishap long after we left her. It was a haunting circumstance: out of our desire to speak with her further, to enjoy her marvelous sense of humor, to assure her that we had made the connection after all, and our further inquiries into her uncommon life and spirit, we might have tried to phone her. We could imagine the phone, now settled onto the silt on the bottom of the harbor, glowing green as it rang with its distinctive “Uh-Oh” tone, muffled in bubbles from the dark depths of the Mediterranean. It was now suddenly out of reach, a part of the elements, a fixture in our memory, another expression of the encroaching distance now dissolving our company as we set out to resume our familiar lives.
-- Rob Fure