Update from Italy: Red Hill Town

Not my image, but a very close facsimile. Photo by Martin Brechtl on Unsplash

Yesterday we took the kids to San Silvestro, an old mine turned local tourist attraction set in the hills a few kilometers in from the coast. Jason has been working on Victor to get him out and about more when we are away from Florence; Vic has aged into mini field trips. They trekked around Populonia on Tuesday and the Roman ruins on Wednesday. At the Roman ruins, Jason learned about San Silvestro, and booked a visit for us.

The area has been mined since the Etruscans were here digging around; the Romans extracted all sorts of valuable minerals from its shafts and quarries, and in the sixteenth century assorted other enterprises were working there. We parked in the shade and walked under the thick oak canopy to the biglietteria. Locusts buzzed in the deserted parking lot. After donning our masks to get the instructions, we set off for the mine shaft, walking up steep gravel hills in broad sunlight with scant shade. Jason carried Eleanor on his shoulders. I was pouring sweat. Vic noted that he, too, was “getting wet under the arms.”

We reached our destination at the top of a hill, after passing a grated mine entrance that spilled forth cool air like a phantom. A metal structure repurposed as a museum told the story of the mine; how it changed hands; English ownership. The strikes and union protests that preceded its eventual permanent closure in 1978. We peered down a narrow black tunnel hung with lanterns. We wondered if we would contract the dreaded cervicale if we went from sweating in the full sun to shivering in a mine shaft with a constant internal temperature of 14 degree Celsius. We concluded that yes, cervicale was very likely inevitable.

Soon a shaft train creaked up and disgorged its two families. Two women, each dressed for the serious outdoors in brown canvas pants and work boots, set to disinfecting the train. We boarded; one woman drove the train, and one sat in the last car to chatter over the constant noise and squeaking about the history of the mine. She also noted somberly that there was an emergency button that we should press if there were some sort or issue or distress; they would stop the train and attend to the passenger to see “cosà è successo” – what happened. Jason and I looked at the amusingly large red button and pointed at it for the children. An emergency button seemed a little over the top. The ride was only ten minutes long.

The searing heat quickly gave way to damp cool, and the endless shrieks of the metal train wheels. We were sitting in a tiny metal car originally made for ore, but refitted with small wooden benches and a crude chain to hold us in place. Fortunately the track was level the whole way. Gallery offshoots opened from the wall of the tunnel every hundred feet or so. The announcer said the train would now stop in the dark to listen to some poetry. She would read the poetry. The poem was written by a miner who started working in the shaft when he was fourteen.

It was very dark and cold. The poetry was lost on Eleanor, who began to cry that it was too dark. Jason and I both got our phones out to turn the flashlights on. I wondered if the announcer lady would chastise us for ruining the poetic moment. From what I could understand of the poetry, it was evocative and spare, but even I began to feel somewhat claustrophobic there in the dark in the ore car, close enough to the rough blasted walls to reach out and touch them with my hands. My five-foot wingspan might have been able to touch both sides at once. I closed my eyes and concentrated on deep breaths. Eleanor hiccuped in my armpit. There was no way we could easily find that emergency button in the dark here. At the triumphant conclusion of the miner’s poem, the lights came on in the enormous cave where the train had stopped. It glittered like Ali Baba’s hideaway everywhere the eye rested. The train lurched back to life. Eleanor cried until we literally saw the light at the end of the tunnel and finished the passage to our stopping place.

The brightly lit view immediately brought U2 to mind. Deep valleys carved into tumbling hillsides, gravel and boulders and scrubby trees. It could have been anywhere. So many places. I felt like I was in Mendoza again. The blue sky and beating sun, and a lone raptor riding a thermal. A building that was used for miners when the company was English has since been turned into a youth hostel. (I was, of course, instantly curious.) Hikers dressed for heat passed us with walking sticks. To the south of the youth hostel stood the fantastic ruins of the miner’s quarters from the cinquecento, the sixteenth century, looking for all the world like a Templar castle on the Levantine coast. The kids moped on a bench. Eleanor said she was not getting back on the train. Vic voluntarily returned to the bench in our newly assigned car (the assigned seats were cracking me up – we were the only family riding the ten-car train). We eventually coaxed her back on, a cell phone in each hand.

“We won’t be stopping and they won’t turn out all the lights,” Jason reassured her.

“How will that help me!” the logic of a five-year-old retorted.

“Well, it is going to be more light and much faster. The other option is to walk.” We all looked at a sweaty family walking down the path with their sticks. That looked like a lot less fun to everyone. What were they, German? Eleanor began to enumerate all the Ali Baba treasures she’d seen in the gift shop. “Yes, you can have a gem tree made of twisted wire and shiny stones and a red ring and a small chunk of copper sulfate that looks like Elsa’s magic powers.” She whimpered all the way back but stared at the cellphone’s flashlight and held it together with her dreams of shiny new gems until we were back on the other side. The recorded protests of the miners fifty years before echoed in the metal hut.

We selected and paid for her purchases and walked back to the car. Eleanor swung the bag and bragged about her new acquisitions.

“You can show them to your friends and make them jealous,” Vic suggested helpfully.

“I am never going on that train again,” she repeated, turning the ring with the red stone on her finger all the way home, watching it glint in the sunlight.

Update from Italy: Beach Vignette

Monday morning I rose early, before 7, and got dressed for a run. The beach was cool; the sand dark with dew. Waves roared in one after the other. I noted by the footprints that Asics were the clear runner of choice on the firm sand. My direction: south toward Populonia, that pre-Roman Etruscan dig chock-full of their beehive homes. I passed from our beach to a public beach, then an off-leash beach, population: one huffing collie I’d already seen around before, with its owner in tow. A red and orange tent was questionably pitched on the sand, and two hippie heads bobbed out from the unzipped flap, curly blonde and standard Italian. I picked up my pace but it wasn’t easy staying on the harder sand while simultaneously avoiding all waves. A tall man in red shorts passed me easily, barely breathing hard. I noted his shoes. Not wet.

I passed a fisherman in hip waders, tying a lure and casting into the surf, a net and a string bag trailing behind him, latched to his belt by carabiners, a cloth cap shielding his eyes. The rod was long. I wondered what silver booty he would pull out from the waves. The sun came up higher over the hills on the east.

A big waves surprised me coming up at least a meter further on shore than any other wave yet. My right shoe and sock were soaked. Squelch, squelch, squelch. I gave up on the job and tried walking, but even the slope of the shore made that a challenge. I quickly began disabusing myself of my prior fantasies of a serene beach jog. I turned around and headed north again, toward San Vincenzo and Livorno, wondering if the sea looked this way on the day Shelley drowned, when they brought his sodden body up from the water and burned it on the beach. (Debunked! But like all great Romantic epics, it is a superb yarn!)

The wind started to pick up. The waves were thrashing, boiling and churning, each crest topped with a head of foam. But what’s this? A gleam on the sand. I bent down to inspect it and saw it was a generously-sized jellyfish, clear with the faintest tint of lavender, its four chambers still pulsing through the transparence. I backed up, squelch, and continued back to our villetta – our cabin. I hadn’t reached anything like a cardio zone but I did feel very serene. Not for the jog, but for the brine in the air, the clear light, the thundering waves.

Waves are huge, I told Jason while changing. I’ve never seen it like that here. I told him about the beached jellyfish I’d seen. We’ve been coming to this same spot every summer for a week since 2017. The surf really was magnificent, felt like the Oaxacan coast or Torrey Pines or Waldport in Oregon.

Eleanor’s been trotting off to kid’s club for three hours once or twice per day. That afternoon, Jason and I took Vic into the surf to jump in the waves. A lot of people were in the water. The lifeguards all on high alert, looking out over the water like pointers on the hunt, red safety missile in hand, white nylon cord wrapped around their wrists. The one watching our segment of the beach repeatedly shouted at people to move away from the rough rocks, his eyebrows lifted up in supplication like one of the Madonnas tucked into a harbor shrine in Venice or Livorno. The outbound current grabbed our ankles with a whoosh of sand headed back out to sea. The receding waves colliding with inbound waves making massive new peaks. The water was full of debris – bits of sea grass, suspended sand, those funny little weeds that look like the love child from a tennis ball and a ping pong ball, dressed in neutral brown and ideal for pitching into the water. I started to feel jumpy. The water was angry, out of control. Too many little kids who obviously were not strong swimmers, my own included. Adults like me who can barely crawl or breast stroke, much less escape a riptide. Temporary signs explained with pictographs and arrows how to get out of a riptide current.

Suddenly Victor began shaking his hand.

What happened? I asked him.

A rock or something scratched me, he said. I squinted into the sunny horizon. It was possible that a shell or a small stone borne by a wave had struck his hand. He continued to shake it.

I want to get out of the water, he said.

On our chairs Jason and I peered at his left index finger, which now had a small dark hole that looked like someone had injected a miniature black pebble into it.

I’ll take him over to the Reception desk, Jason said, and off they trotted. Twenty minutes later they loped back and went straight back to our villetta. I gathered all our things and met them at the terrace. Victor was sitting down trying not to cry.

Jellyfish, they said, Jason told me. But a small one.

It didn’t feel small to me! Vic bit his lower lip. His hand was now puffy and red on the side of the pebble hole. Jason skated around consulting Dr. Google (no cortisone, no ice, yes ammonia, yes neosporin), and I went into rummage out our generously provisioned medical bag. Vic got a good-sized smear of neosporin with painkiller (yay kids’ version from the US). You can cry if you need to cry, Jason told him.

I don’t want to cry! Victor said angrily, trying not to cry. My philosophical comforts failed to find their mark. There was no sympathy for jellyfish on the terrace.

We swam in nature, it wasn’t a pool, I said. We love the ocean and share it with other creatures. That jellyfish was probably so lost and confused, getting bounced far away from his normal spot.

I don’t care! Vic shouted, glowering at me.

Eventually the swelling went down. Vic railed about off-leash jellyfish for the next two days and felt jumpy about getting in the water. Today we dove back in, with his new boogie board and the enormous inflatable unicorn that belongs to Eleanor. They’re still talking about jellyfish, but with a now-reduced frequency.