This is my Father's world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker's praise.
This is my Father's world: He shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

- Maltbie D. Babcock

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Cats in High Places

Anyone who knows me well will probably tell you that I am destined to be the crazy old cat lady of my neighbourhood. I love cats. I love my cats. I freely admit that I cried when I left home on April 23rd and my cat gave me that "I see the suitcases - I know, you're leaving me again" look.

My travel companion, Wendy, does not love cats. She doesn't even like cats. Nonetheless, she has had to admit that the cats of Europe have, on an almost daily basis, conspired to show up in the oddest places to put a smile on my face.

Paris seemed to be bereft of cats. In spite of all of the lovely parks and trees, it definitely seemed to be more of a doggie town. My first "chat" sighting did not take place until Avignon. We were touring the Palais des Papes, a huge stone edifice with many great rooms and narrow hallways. As we neared the top level, a cat wearing a collar came trotting down a walkway past all the visitors, looking like he owned the place. A castle cat. We later spotted him curled up in a little nook in a wall - a spot to keep cool and out of the midday sun. Since that first sighting, at least one cat seems to have crossed our paths nearly every day. Alley cats, medieval cats, B&B cats, cemetery cats, rooftop cats, cats peering out from niches in stone walls. But I must say, so far the Italian cats have made me smile the most. Sunday, as we took our first walk through the streets of Vernazza, I spotted a few different cats on steps throughout the village. In the evening, as we sat at an outdoor cafe by the harbour, I noticed an older woman walking toward the water with a bag in her hand. Behind her, trotting in formation, came three of the cats that I had seen around town earlier. They followed her obediently to a spot near the water's edge, then gathered around as she spooned the contents of a can of food onto the rocks for them. When they had finished eating, they took turns licking off the spoon in her hand. So, Italy has "crazy" cat ladies too.

The ultimate sighting to date occurred today as we were hiking from Vernazza to Monterosso. I had panted and wheezed my way up the steep stone steps and stony trail to what would turn out to be nearly the highest reach of our climb before descending. In front of us was a deep stone ledge and on it, a large cat. He meowed hopefully as I approached. It was then that I noticed two cat "houses" at the back of the ledge along with a few plates. The one cat was quickly joined by two others, all purring and mewing as I petted them, and seeming quite sure that I must have brought them something to eat. So either there is a crazy cat lady in a dwelling perched on the mountainside who cares for this little colony of cliff cats, or they survive on the offerings of passing hikers!

But enough about cats. Tonight we are winding down our final evening in Vernazza. We arrived here on Sunday afternoon after a totally sleepless night and six hours on the "milk run" from Nice. The train ride afforded us only brief glimpses of the Mediterranean coastline, as the majority of the time we were snaking through black tunnels. By the time we arrived in Vernazza, we were almost too exhausted to appreciate its charms. We soon connected with our hostess, Michelle, and her beautiful baby Sofia. Then came the bad news - our room, like everything else in town, was up - 69 steps up, to be exact. Up the side of the mountains which surround the town. To say that wrestling our luggage up the steep stone steps and narrow walkways was gruelling would be an understatement. When we finally made it to our destination, we were rewarded with wonderful views from the shared veranda, and a lovely and comfortable room. Vernazza is as lovely as the post cards, yet also less polished and more down-to-earth. While there is a great deal of tourist activity, one also gets a good sense of it being a real working community. Laundry hangs on clothes lines outside of windows, even on the main street, and fishing boats and gear are stored up against the buildings. The buildings themselves are all pastel colours with dark green shutters, and are separated by narrow alleyways of stairs climbing up and up from the street. Store owners are likely to be out in the street visiting with friends, only returning to their posts when a potential customer walks in. Women chat to each other window-to-window across narrow passages. What is most amazing is the way that the steep, mountainous terrain has been put to use. Starting down at the harbour, the houses and buildings are stacked like dominoes up the slope. Wherever there is not a building, there is a terrace, often contained by a low cement wall. These terraces were created over a thousand years by peasant farmers, and they continue literally to the peaks of the mountains. Lemon trees, heavily laden with fruit year-round, orange trees, olive trees, vineyards, roses, and even corn grows in this ingenious system. It's hard to conceive how difficult it must be to reach and work these plots. There are even small dwellings on the sides of the mountain, right up to the top!

We have filled these too-short days with hikes to the neighbouring villages on trails that threaten to stop my heart - either from the long, steep upward climbs or the dizzying views off narrow paths with no guardrails. We have refreshed ourselves by dipping in the waters of the Mediterranean and by sipping the locally produced white wine while sharing stories with fellow travellers. Some of us have consumed more gelato than seems humanly possible (hint: it's not me). We have dined on overpriced spaghetti bolognese in the square by the harbour as the sun set beside us and bells rang out from the church on the hill. I will have trouble saying goodbye to the Cinque Terre. I wish we had more days just to BE in Vernazza. But time marches on. Next stop - Florence.

(In real time, we are actually about to leave Florence, but I'm way behind on my writing. All this blasted sightseeing really eats up your time!)

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