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.