Sunday, October 16, 2011

Travelogue: the fine line between irony and serendipity

We had been having a stupendous run of luck with the weather. For two weeks we had nothing but clear blue skies. In fact, one day I got a sunburn. In Europe. In October.

Then two days ago our luck ran out. We arrived in Amalfi to some ominous looking clouds and a pretty good-sized swell. Some time later the captain announced that it was too rough to be able to operate the tenders to shore, that he was canceling the stop, and we would have a day at sea en route to our next destination, Taormina.

To describe my reaction to this news I have to rewind just a bit: we had actually been to Amalfi earlier on this same trip. We're on multiple legs of a cruise whose itinerary was really designed to be done one leg at a time, so we have a number of repeat destinations. The idea was to use our first stop to get an overview of the place, and then the second to do a deep-dive into whatever we had found most interesting the first time around.

On our first stop in Amalfi I found a secret route out of town. Yes, I know how weird that must sound, but only if you've never been to Amalfi. The town, you see, is quite literally built on a cliff. Actually, it's built into a little canyon carved into a cliff, but let's not quibble too much over semantics. The point is, there is absolutely no level ground around Amalfi. Nada. Zilch. Zip.

So at first glance it appears that there is exactly one way in and out of town. It's a road that was laboriously carved into the limestone in the 1800's, and is today occupied by vehicles that the road's designers could not possibly have imagined in their wildest dreams, everything from scooters to tour busses. Lots and lots of tour busses. So many, in fact, that they are constrained by law to only go one direction. There are many, many places along the Amalfi road where it would be physically impossible for two busses to pass one another.

All that diesel exhaust makes the Amalfi road a not-very-pleasant route to walk. But it has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, and I really wanted to get some pictures without having to shoot through the window of a bus. So I decided to take my life in my hands and walk out of town.

A quarter mile or so out I noticed a footpath that crossed the road and decided on a whim to find out where it went. To make a long story short, it turned out to go back into town, and connect with a whole network of footpaths that criss-cross the slopes all along the Amalfi coast. The access to this path from the center of Amalfi is so well hidden that while I'm pretty sure I could find it again, I could not describe how to get there to anyone else.

So on the one hand, I was really looking forward to showing my discovery to Nancy and some other friends we have made on the boat. On the other hand, we had been touring non-stop for two weeks, and the pace was starting to get a little grueling. So part of me was disappointed, and part of me was relieved that we would get a much-needed vacation from our vacation.

So we headed South.

Those of you of a certain age will remember the theme song of a television series called "Gilligan's Island" with the line, "The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed." Except for the ship not being so tiny, that's pretty much what happened. The weather deteriorated rapidly, and long before we got to Taormina it was announced that that stop was being cancelled as well, and we would be heading instead for the safety of the deepwater port at Messina, where we finally arrived around 8PM after passing through one of the most spectacular lightning storms I have ever seen in my life.

Now, there is a reason that Messina was not on the original itinerary. It was once a charming Sicilian town, but then it was destroyed in an earthquake and rebuilt as a depressing modern monstrosity. There is graffiti everywhere. A few pre-earthquake buildings stand forlornly amidst a sea of utterly bland cinder-block apartments. It is hard to say which did more damage: the earthquake, or the urban planners who oversaw the reconstruction.

Oh well, at least it's not raining, I thought to myself as I stepped out onto the balcony to assess the weather. And then I heard a sort of "chuff" sound from down below. I looked over the railing, and there were two pilot whales right below me, almost close enough to touch.

Yeah, I know, the photo doesn't look like much. But you have to remember that this photo was taken well after their initial appearance, after I'd had a chance to get over the shock of seeing whales in an industrial harbor at all, let alone practically under my feet, and run inside and grab my camera.

It was by far the best look I've ever had at a whale. And but for some bad weather, I never would have seen them.

Postscript: we left Messina and promptly sailed into the gnarliest storm I have ever experienced. Chaise lounges were flying across the pool deck. We found out later that the wind had been a sustained 70 knots true. That put the storm solidly in the range of a category 1 hurricane. Not an experience I ever care to repeat.

Today the wind is down to a mere 40-50 knots, but the weather at our next port (Santorini) is looking dicey as well. And to top it all off, this leg ends in Athens, where a general strike is scheduled to begin the day we arrive.

I overheard a truly heartbreaking lament from one passenger who, along with his family, is only on board for this one leg. This was supposed to have been their trip of a lifetime. They scrimped and saved for years to be able to afford it. And now they will likely be spending more than half of their time stuck aboard the ship in the rain.

Sometimes Loki has a truly perverse sense of irony.


Jared said...

And I thought the Mediterranean and Greece were supposed to be sunny and peaceful!

Ron said...

So did we. (Actually, the port of Piraeus, which is where we are currently docked, is very peaceful. As a result of the general strike, nothing is moving.)