Welcome to today’s post in the continuing saga of Running, Writing, and Traveling for Life. If you are interested in listening to this, please click on this link:
I’ve been running competitively, off and on, ever since Junior High School. I’ve probably had a bit more than my share of successes, some colossal failures, and several injuries, with some muscles and tendons breaking down more than once.
The most recent have been calf cramps in both legs which I have had before. I did rest, but even after a few weeks of rest and then gentle running, I experienced occasional twinges in both calves. But when we left for a Stanford Study/Travel Tour of Italy a few weeks ago, the twinges had not occurred, and I planned to do some running, interspersed with touring.
Alas, that was not to be! This turned out to be a “cross-training” trip. I had failed to catch this fine print in the tour brochure: “You must be capable of extensive walking-two to four miles-in historic centers, in museums and on city tours, as well as extended periods of standing on excursions. Participants will encounter uneven terrain, including some dirt and cobblestoned paths, and must be able to walk at least 20 minutes up and down hills in the Tuscan towns and at Gargonza. At the Palio, participants must be able to sit outside for several hours on metal bleacher seats with limited legroom.” I really should have paid attention to this last bit about the Palio, but more about that later.
On the first full day of the tour we took the train from Santa Margherita in Liguria to the coastal town of Camogli, part of the Italian Riviera. We toured the town, had lunch overlooking the beach, and then took the ferry to the Benedictine Abbey of Santa Fruttuoso. I had planned to participate in the 3 hour walk, up and down the mountains that separated Santa Fruttuoso and Portofino, the most famous town on the Italian Riviera. I took one look up at the steep inclines, my jet lag exhaustion kicked in, and I decided to save myself for the famous Cinque Terre hike the following day. I joined the majority, who took the ferry from Santa Fruttuoso to Portofino. I was glad at the time I had chosen that option, because the one hour tour of hilly Portofino pretty much wiped me out. We saw lots of yachts, and while Portofino was pleasant, I wouldn’t call it trending!
We then took the ferry back to Santa Margherita, and it sure was a long, uphill walk from the pier to our hotel, the Continental.
That brings me to the next day. It began with a near debacle of us getting on the semi-express to Monterosso by mistake (it was late), rather than the local, which we had tickets for. The conductor removed most of us at the next stop, but some did not get the message and remained on board, including one of our guides who was looking for those still on the train. We ultimately did get on the local, and were joined further down the line by the rest of our group. One of our group said conductors do this regularly to collect extra money for their own pockets, but I only know he said it would cost an extra 11.50 euros to stay on the semi-express. You can decide whether or not the allegation is true.
During the brief tour of Monterosso, my right calf began to twinge. I looked up at the steep climb up out of the town; the trail appeared to go straight up, not switched back and forth, the way the path was cut, rising out of Santa Fruttuoso the day before. I was on the verge of bailing out of this hike as well.
Then, a tiny miracle happened. The pain in my calf vanished. I felt a surge of energy. It was game on.
It wasn’t easy. We did climb straight up for about the first twenty minutes, but then the trail swung to the left, along a ridge which had a lesser incline, leading further inland. We began encountering lemon trees and grape vines, planted into the terraced mountainside. We stopped and our guide, Marco, gave us a short history of the rise and fall of the lemon industry over the last 800 years, which was replaced eventually by the current wine industry.
We moved on, and then mounted a series of very steep steps, until we ultimately reached the peak of the highest mountain. From there on the bias was down, but there certainly were more steep ups as well. Along the way, we stopped at the “cat feeding” station. As you can tell from the picture, this cat may have been past saving!
After 3 hours, we spied the village of Vernazza far below and the panorama made for a breathtaking photo. We saw the ferry that was loading the rest of our group for the trip to Portofino, but it took us 20 minutes to get down the mountain to the dock, so we missed it.
Fortunately, Sylvia, another one of our guides, was hiking with us, and she arranged for a private boat to take us on to Manarola, where we met up with the rest of the group. We had an extremely challenging hike around the uphill town, then further up to meet our bus. We first came to the car parking area (no buses there!), further up a path alongside the very narrow road (a bus couldn’t make it), and then finally up to a wider road where the bus was waiting. I was plenty glad they had bottles of water on the bus!
The next day we took the bus from Liguria to Tuscany, where my wife and I had been a few times before. We stayed in Gargonza, just outside Arezzo, for the next few days, and the highlight during that time was the Palio horserace in Siena. There are several Palio celebrations all around Italy, but nothing is quite like this 800 year old grudge match. This is a 3 lap race, run on a trucked-in dirt track laid around the center of Il Campo, and there are no rules!!!
Even after I had read the warning to prepare for discomfort during the Palio, I did not expect 5 hours of regular waves of pain. We were all packed into the stadium seats with our knees pressed against the backs of those in front of us and someone else’s knees digging into our backs. We could stand, and we did frequently, but when the Contradas’ (Neighborhoods) parades began, with all their pomp and circumstance, we did so more sparingly because we blocked the view of those next to us and behind us.
The worst part was waiting for the race to actually start. All 10 horses had to be in the right starting positions before the restraining rope would be dropped, starting the race. Believe it or not, this took over 1 hour to accomplish. Various jockeys are paid huge sums to obstruct or facilitate the start of foe or friendly Contradas. This was mainly accomplished by a jockey not guiding his horse into the correct starting position. Countless times we heard the starter say, “Go out! Go out!” and the horses would leave the starting area and circle around. Then they would be called again, according to their drawn starting position. And countless times, the crowd would emit its disapproving whistles, typical in Europe. And it was getting darker and darker as twilight began to close around us!
Suddenly, the number 10 horse bolted into his slot, the starter dropped the rope, and the race was on! In a matter of a few seconds the horses were in the straightaway right in front of us, and in several more seconds they flashed by and went into the next turn.
Then, incredibly, the jockey riding for the Valdimontone (Ram) Contrada reached across to the Nicchio (Shell) jockey to his right and yanked him off his horse! A roar of horror rose up in the crowd, and my mind was stunned by what I had just witnessed. I thought, “How could this even happen….” Then I remembered that there were no rules. And I realized how easy it was to unseat the jockey, because they were all riding bareback, with no saddles or stirrups to aid them. The others rushed on, including the jockey-less horse. The second and third turns in the track were literally 90 degrees, and some of the horses actually careened off the far wall on those turns. The pace was extremely fast and the three lap race was over before we were even over the shock of seeing one jockey unhorse another.
Suddenly a man who was sitting behind us charged down the steep steps, dashed out onto the dirt track and up to the jockey who did the unhorsing. He and a couple of others helped him off his horse and spirited him away through a tunnel to safety. Immediately thereafter a swarm of men from the unhorsed Contrada charged onto the track from our right and the Contrada whose jockey did the unhorsing spilled out onto the track from our left, with the abandoned horse trapped between them. Fists flew and security forces quickly drove a wedge between the two Contradas.
The next twenty minutes were super-tense. A groom kept the horse moving back and forth between the opposing forces who continued to scream at each other, while some tried to breach the security line to get at their enemy. Nobody actually got through, but the security line appeared to be weakening. Finally the Carabinieri National Police forced their way in, with full riot gear. Gradually they pushed each Contrada further and further back from the other, giving more room to the horse and the groom. Eventually they reached a space where they could leave the track for the safety of the stables. We then made our way down the steep steps of the stands, out onto the track, and through the closest exit, thus ending our long summer afternoon of discomfort. I’m glad we had this incredible experience, but I don’t believe I’ll do it again! This must be an example of what people mean when they say, “It’s a once in a lifetime experience!”
The balance of the tour lacked the excitement and tension of the Palio, but certainly worth visits. We toured the Etruscan Hill Town of Cortona which predates the arrival of the Romans. The Etruscan Museum is comprehensive and demonstrates the power of women in their culture. Much of their sculptures, ceramics and other art were copied by the Romans.
Their tombs were reminiscent of the Egyptians, filled with possessions from this life for use in the next one. On the day before we left Italy we did visit an actual Etruscan Burial Ground in Cerveteri, about 50 miles north of the Rome Airport. It was an incredibly peaceful spot and several of the tombs were filled with hunting tools, beds, tables, chairs, pots and several other useful items. It was well worth the stop.
Another very interesting stop was the medieval town of Lucca. It is the birthplace of composer Giacomo Puccini. There are several good restaurants, including Ristorante Puccini nearby. The food is good and moderately priced, but they accept cash only. We also dined at the excellent Buca di Sant’Antonio which is premium priced, but worth it. It’s a wonderful walking town, but take your map; it’s easy to get lost in the oval-walled town. The wall is a good landmark, but it is, after all, round. It all looks pretty much alike, particularly at night.
The final tour stop that lingers in my memory is the gargantuan scale of the marble quarries at Carrara. This is where Michelangelo found the huge slab of marble with which he sculptured his famous David into a figure way larger than life. I can pull this mine into my consciousness readily. A few pictures will do a far better job with this image than my mere words can do. These remain captured memories in my mind’s eye.
I would like to share the good news with you, here at the end. The rest and the “cross training” walking while we were in Italy, plus slow running when I returned home, have resulted in recovery from the calf injuries! I am back up to my normal training regimen of running 3 days a week and walking and other cross training 2 days!!
Please let me know if you would like to know anything more about this monumental trip. You can send a note to me in the Leave A Reply Box below.
Thanks for traveling with me in this vicarious way.