Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Italy - Cinque Terre

Dedicated to Acacia and Kim. Happy Birthdays!

The last couple of days have been spent in Cinque Terre. I arrived after an eight-hour series of train transfers, finding myself unexpectedly in a tunnel that turned out to be Riomaggiore.

I stepped out into the cold darkness, hearing the waves breaking distantly on the rocks beneath the cliff-top railway station. I was the only person leaving the train there that night. I was met as I left the tunnel by an old lady who looked for all the world like ''Grandma Death'' from Donnie Darko. With wild white hair going in all directions, slightly manic eyes behind large glasses, and a flowery overcoat, she proffered a scrap of paper reading ''15'' and insisted in very limited but friendly English that she had the best cheap rooms in Riomaggiore, with lots of people and beautiful women. What a deal... but I wasn't sure I could trust her. It might have been a brothel for all I knew.

The hostel was actually very good, an exercise in simplicity. The bathrooms left heaps to be desired (I simply didn't use them), but I had a room to myself the first night and the people were fantastic. The lovely Catrina and Leisel (the ''beautiful women'' mentioned by the eccentric Madam Ruso) were Australians working in London and travelling Europe, and Liam was an 18-y.o. Melbournian (familiar with LSC&PH) who has already tackled central Africa solo. He gave me a fantastic near-valueless Zimbabwe $500 note, wonderfully worn and exotic, and I gave him extensive written advice in his diary on travelling Turkey, including hand-drawn maps to the secret tunnels we discovered in Cappadocia.

The next day was spent trekking the world-heritage landscapes of the Cinque Terre. These are five tiny cliffside fishing villages surrounded by terraced fields for olives and grapevines. The Mediterranean was turquoise and flat, changing colours with the sun's movement, and the fields were highlighted with autumn colours. Bare earth lay behind the remaining red vineleaves, the brilliant yellow of the intermittent figs, and the blurring oranges of chestnut trees raged amongst deep green pine forests. Most striking were the silvery evergreen olive orchards, whose bases were wrapped in diaphonous orange nets like a collaborative installation by Christo and Andy Goldsworthy.

I was frustrated by the impressive-looking but functionally useless path maps, and ended up waylaid by another eccentric old Italian lady. They called me off the path I had found, after much searching, and insisted the town I was headed for for in the other direction. This was completely contrary to the map's advice, but she was insistent so I took her word. And yes, indeed, a sign was found later on saying this was the right way. However, the next town I found myself in was actually the one in the opposite direction to where I had wanted to go.

Such is Cinque Terre.

But the day's peregrinations were excellent, and so was the evening. Good quality DOCG Chianti and local fresh pesto on pasta I cooked myself, shared amongst the mates from the previous night, as well as several interesting Americans who arrived that day. We worked out difficult lateral thinking scenarios amongst all manner of conversation. I ended up playing chess made from toilet tissue scraps against a carpenter-poet from Minnesota until 1am.

Now, I am writing from Pisa, on my way to Perugia, where I expect to spend most of my final days in Italy before jetting back to Egypt. Pisa's tower is everything the postcards say it is, but more elegant than I expected. I was captivated by the stunning white marble cathedral and baptistery behind it - they were like the silver and bronze position holders in the Olympics. Always ignored behind the media frenzy around the gold medallist, but amazing achievements nonetheless.


  • At Friday, November 18, 2005 6:35:00 am, Blogger Jenny said…

    Great post Sambo - just the right mix of light stuff, realism, art and movie references - and that little touch of the dark creeping in.

    Not too sure about tonight's word verification though. jwank??? Especially just after watching 40 Days and 40 Nights about someone who gives up sex.

    Take care



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