Sunday, November 8, 2015

First World Problems on the Italian Riviera

Excursion queues on cruise ships are proof that, but for a scattering of genius individuals through history, the human species should not have progressed beyond the cave. Even management befitting of livestock is not enough to guarantee all of of the herd egresses from the staging area in an orderly manner. The Emerald Princess was berthed in Genoa, and we were booked for a day's tour of the Italian Riviera. Prosperity seems only by random chance when you watch so many well-to-do people struggle to navigate their way to the gangway on command. I could only think of the wreck of the Costa Concordia, rusting away within a stone's throw of our mooring like the rotting carcass of a beached whale, a tangible symbol of human absurdity.

Costa Concordia is in the process of being scrapped in the background (left). May the schooner in the foreground have a happier fate.
But the army of shepherds gets everyone to their designated bus in the end. As I waited to board the motorcoach I overheard our day's tour guide tell tell one young man, " need to have a ticket to get on the bus."

I immediately sat in the front row with my son so I could listen in through the open door. I recognized the situation and the twenty-something youth from our previous day's excursion near Marseilles. Large sunglasses, a beachy button-down shirt open to his chest and feet shod in thong sandals, he had the casually raffish look of an entitled brat.

"My grandmother has a ticket," he said. "She's already on the bus." After some cajoling, he boarded so the guide could take tickets from the other passengers.

Now I'd seen this exact same story play out the day before. Then, I'd first seen him melt into the disembarkation line beside Grandma after we'd all picked up our tickets in the ship's theater. After boarding the bus in Marseilles, they'd had a lengthy argument with the French tour guide, insisting he'd given her his ticket. She was one short of the number of guests on the bus. "I know it's you," she said to the kid. The guide even went to the length of collecting a list of our names to cross-check against the manifest. Time was pressing though, and we proceeded on nearly 10 minutes after all the other buses had departed. Later, at day's end, I saw the guide still trying to reconcile extra attraction tickets she needed to purchase with cruise officials at the port of Marseilles.

I was not entirely sure of the situation then, but now I saw a pattern. I discreetly mentioned my suspicions to our Genoese guide.

"It can't be helped," she said. " I can't hold up the bus, because there are so many others and our schedule is tight." So we continued on to experience a day in three small towns of the Ligurian coast, Rapallo, Santa Margherita Ligure and Portofino.

Now the setting is mainly just window dressing for this loose collection of observations. Nearly every habitation in Europe has some historical significance -- we drove under a Roman-era bridge that was apparently crossed by Hannibal in Rapallo -- and the Ligurian coast is no exception, but the Italian Riviera is largely famous as a place where eye-popping natural scenery and the human craving for leisure within earshot of society's jet set are juxtaposed in what were once just quiet fishing villages. Excepting the rich history and landmarks of Genoa, it is not a place to experience the sublimity of world wonders.

Castello sul Mare, erected in 1551 in Rapallo to ward off pirates.

A native Genovese, Columbus looks forward in Santa Margherita. What direction is he pointing in this time?

Still, there is a distinctive local style. Buildings in the seaside resorts of Rapallo and Santa Margherita have stucco façades that are painted to appear as if there is decorative framing around the windows or brickwork, an effect of trompe l'oeil that is a throwback to a time when the residents wished to appear more prosperous. The effect is seen everywhere. The main architectural features of Liguria are its Romanesque medieval churches, with striped façades of black (or green) and white marble. And there are the everyday pleasures that make Europe a joy--noisy open air markets, narrow streets and cafes.

Examples of trompe l'oeil.

One of the striped churches of Liguria. This is Chiesa di San Martino in Portofino. It's unusual in that this one is black and yellow.

Departing Santa Margherita for Portofino.

Portofino may be the crown of the Riviera. A cheap hotel there is over US$500 per night. Yachts are lined up in the small port like automobiles at a supermarket. But real pleasures like soaking in the sun or relishing a gelato cost me no more than they do a prince. If one cafe is too expensive, the one next door might offer similar fare at a reasonable price. The views are all just as good, and the scent of the sea is free. Though let's be honest, no one who visits the Italian Riviera on holiday is exactly suffering.

Sparkling Portofino.

There is a curious tie to St. George in Portofino. Crusaders who had acquired his (apparent) headless skeletal relics made landfall here after a fierce storm,and they left a portion of the Saint's remains in Portofino in thanksgiving for their deliverance. His head is apparently still in Palestine.


I loved the arcuate row of warm pastel, cliffside buildings that hug both the the base of verdant cliffs and the water. Portofino is like a small Venice with hills, and it was the most intimate of the Riviera towns we visited. And the yachts? They are nice to look at and dream about while providing years of employment to the many somebodies who make them.

The "other half" lives on the water.

No, it wasn't the ultra-rich I found irksome on the high-rolling Ligurian coast. They don't think about me; I don't dwell particularly much on them. It was the demanding vacation demagogues who try overly hard to parrot the ultra-rich for a few days. One woman in my group complained that a small church in Portofino, pointed out to us as an interesting option free to visit on our own time, meant a walk uphill. "Why would the guide point something out that we can't all get to or find a way to take us there," she said. Later in Rapallo, also during a free time, the light drizzle had a man steaming that the motorcoach should come early and detour from its scheduled rendezvous point. "Why can't these people have looked at the forecast and been ready to change the itinerary?" Ironically, there was the welcoming shelter of a beautiful little church just across the street.

There's a thin line between grateful appreciation and jealousy. So many treasures in easy reach, and some the casual visitor can only dream of; the Ligurian coast evokes both.

Arrivederci a Genova.