Italian police are very good whistlers. I could hear this one across the rocks and sea from about 100 yards, and I was pretty sure he was trying to get my attention. I looked up and he waved me toward him. “Oh good,” I thought, “the blasting is over and I can approach the ship.” I walked over, but it turned out he was telling me to get farther away, not closer. A small defeat, but I had already won the war.
I had arrived that morning on Isola del Giglio with a mission: to get as close to the Costa Concordia as possible, in her shadow if possible. The site of her funnel almost hanging over the rocks drew me toward her, from London, from the mainland Italian port of Santo Stefano where I had found a hotel room, from the Giglio harbor where the ferry brought me. I kept coming closer to see this broken giant at her resting place.
She seemed at once permanent and temporary. A behemoth of steel, with a rock embedded in her side, she seemed so firmly grounded as to be part of the island itself. Yet she was at that rakish angle that the world finds so tantalizing, and she was slowly scraping further into the sea, waiting for rougher weather to come and finish what the rocks had started.
In the Giglio harbor, the ferry had landed me amidst a circus of reporters, police, and rescue workers. I arrived on the first ferry of the day along with 50 search and rescue workers from the Vigili del Fuoco in heavy black waterproof uniforms with bright yellow stripes. There were also Polizia Municipale and Polizia Provinciale with splendid uniforms including leather waist and cross-shoulder belts with guns in their holsters. The Italians of course have always worn great uniforms, and this event was showing them off in great variety.
I thought to myself that this circus could have been gathered around almost any great event: a natural catastrophe, a terrorist attack, or even a grand “close encounter” with space aliens. But this circus was focused on a cruise ship lying on its side just outside the harbor. So close it was, in fact, that our ferry had to sail right past it to enter the harbor. During the hour on the ferry, I had explored the world that is a ship of any size: the various decks indoors and out, the food available at the snack bar, and the gents toilet. But as we slid past the Concordia, I got a glimpse of what a real ship was. She was several times our ferry’s length and made it feel we may as well have been riding in a dinghy. Even in her agony she still commands respect.
A disaster has an excitement that building or creating cannot have. Creation is always purposeful and intentional, so it is expected, it is understood. But disaster, whether act of God or of man, intentional or accidental, is never the intention of society. It has no purpose as far as most of us are concerned. So it is crazy, it is an aberration, it is jarring and shocking and leaves us feeling weak-kneed in its presence because we can only approach it after the fact – in awe having been powerless to stop it beforehand. It is no wonder there are many who are attracted to destructive acts. It isn’t just easier to destroy than to build. It’s also hugely exciting.
This atmosphere of excitement was on the ferry and on the waterfront, it was present in all of the groups of the various professionals all mutually exclusive. The Vigili del Fuoco are all comrades, talking and joking easily in Italian to one another. The Polizia Municipale, in pairs, also talk only to each other in their black uniforms, as do the Polizia Provinciale in their gray. The reporters with their camera crews are all in their individual groups, weighed down by cameras and sound and lighting equipment into stationary islands of people, talking on their cell phones more than to one another. The writers I suppose are alone and hard to identify, their equipment less obvious. Or maybe there aren’t any writers any more. Except me.
Later, in the tiny island port, I wander past these same little cliques in an ebbing and flowing crowd, trying not to be run over by the vehicles unloading from another ferry. Shops and cafes line the waterfront. But I have another need. I see a temporary sign for “WC”, posted seemingly for the benefit of the various circus personnel, and I decide to follow it.
It leads me back from the waterfront along a narrow pedestrian alley, probably hundreds of years old. Coming out to a wider street, I see a mysterious procession of a walking priest being interviewed by a reporter, cameraman walking backward in front of them, the three surrounded by Polizia Municipale, and then more reporters and cameramen following and shadowing alongside and running ahead and jumping on top of walls to get a better shot. A moving ring of this multi-ring circus. So of course I forget my bodily needs and follow along.
We continue away from the port and up the slope of the town, up more narrow alleys and switchback turns, all the while this priest quietly speaking to the reporter.
Finally we get to a schoolyard gate and the police crowd round the group of three so only they, and then the police, can go through the gate. The rest of us are left outside. I turn to the reporter next to me and we simultaneously begin to ask each other “Do you know…?” And then we both burst out laughing, and walk back down the hill together before I turn to again follow the “WC” signs.
The signs carry me more blocks, finally to a municipal building that seems to have become the command center. The sign on the door says “Lunch 12:30 – 3:00, Dinner 5:30 – 7:30.” “Free food!” I think to myself. I go inside and the large hall is full of tables, already nicely set with table clothes and plates of bread and fruit, several women of all ages hurrying to make final preparation for lunch. Then at the back of the hall I see the final “WC” sign, on the WC door. I go in. It is a single person facility. This town has hundreds of emergency workers with nowhere else to use the toilet and they are sending them all to this one plumbing fixture. Yet there was no queue. So I guess the system was working. It worked for me, anyway. (Of course, Italians are too cool to need to use the toilet.)
The wreck – it isn’t until you are there and see it that you realize that is what is should be called, despite the media calling it by name or “the ship” – is clearly visible from the harbor. This view you have seen, with the two little harbor lighthouses, one red and one green, in the newspapers or on TV. I walked toward that direction thinking that I could just walk along the water’s edge all the way to the rocks by the wreck. But the shoreline past the harbor quickly becomes too rocky to pass. I had to climb the steep road up out of the town and into the hills. Suddenly it didn’t seem so cold a day.
In fact it was sunny and only a bit cool. I began to sweat in my jeans and long sleeves and jacket. Quickly the jacket came off. I asked someone the way, and in Italian they told me up and to the right. When I had got high enough it seemed time to turn right toward the sea, I turned and went up the steep stairs into a group of small apartment buildings on the hillside. I was quickly lost among the buildings. I asked directions again. The woman didn’t speak much English but she led me – one of many times when language failed but I was led by kind strangers. She led me through the buildings and farther up the hill, through her neighbors’ vegetable and herb gardens, and finally to a rock with a commanding view of the wreck.
Protesting futilely in Engtalian that I wanted to go down to the wreck, she said no, you can’t go down from here. So I enjoyed the view, then found the road again. I knew from google maps that the rocks the wreck lay near were the end of a little peninsula that was below a house. So I kept going and found the property. Quite a place it was, a real Tuscan villa with terraced orchards and vineyard above and below and all around it. I passed the “no trespassing” sign and the strands of emergency tape at the gated entrance. I thought about cutting across the upper slopes above the vineyard but it looked quite steep. Instead I kept to the driveway and made a civilized frontal assault. A few hundred yards down the drive I found two people who didn’t seem to care that I was there. The island’s inhabitants seemed to have resigned themselves to being overrun. I then walked down through the terraces until finally coming to a little arched doorway in a wall at the bottom and went through onto a path into a wood. I felt like I was in a set from The Gladiator. This scene with terraces and stone walls and ancient water wells may have been unchanged for 2000 years. But I had a date with an ocean liner.
From there I descended through woods to a view of the wreck only a couple hundred yards away. After that I came to some striped emergency tape but I crossed it on the theory that no one seems to follow the law much here anyway. There were people on the little peninsula but I assumed they were reporters and photographers. But as I approached, one of them came toward me and I soon realized he was a policeman.
I had a brief conversation with him during which I tried every angle, but he insisted that they were blasting holes in the ship to aid the rescue workers and it wasn’t safe to approach any closer than the emergency tape. I retreated and waited, then went in search of somewhere more interesting to wait. I started to work my way out on a second peninsula that should have a good view, but when the police saw me, they began to whistle.
Getting to Santo Stefano had been fairly easy, if slow, the previous day. The trip from the airport started with a disappointing experience with the Italian system for selling transport tickets. There were several booths advertising train tickets, but they all seemed to sell other things as well. I went up to one and told them where I wanted to go by train. The gentleman behind the counter said that I should rent a car instead. He said the trains were running slow, that transport was screwed up because of the wreck, so it was better to rent a car. I realized he didn’t have my best interest in mind, so I started to walk away. Then he said, “No, no, no, I’ll sell you a train ticket if you want. So I repeated I wanted a ticket to Orbetello. Then he told me they only sold tickets to Rome. So I left. Eventually I found the proper counter to buy tickets directly from the rail company, no fuss about it there.
Then the train itself was a bit of a shock. I expected the train from Italy’s biggest airport into Rome (to change trains) to be sleek and modern. But the train that arrived at the platform was workman-like, with plenty of graffiti. Another train had an engine that said “Erotic” in foot-high letters on the front. I wonder if the driver got a little thrill from that? Inside the train, there was graffiti on the seats and windows as well. Not as much as New York subway cars in the 70s, but still more than I expected.
Changing trains twice, and missing one connection by seconds, meant that a 10:30 am arrival at the airport translated into a 4:00 pm arrival at Porto Santo Stefano. And there was still a ferry ride to go out to Isola del Giglio. I decided to stay the night in Porto Santo Stefano, and there was one hotel just above the waterfront. I went up and they did hsave a room and it was 40 euros per night. I knew the rooms out on Giglio were going for 140 euros per night, IF you could find one available, so I took it. It included wifi and breakfast and was a nice big airy room at the back with 12-foot ceilings. And as I was still checking in, another man came in and asked for a room, and they told him they were full.
I went out later searching for a place to eat. A highly recommended place was closed for the season, but the owner there recommended another good place. And on the way to that place, I passed a cozy little place, just a few little tables inside, and busy. It looked very nice, and I was tired from the day’s travels, so I just stopped. It was the perfect place for me, a very short menu of Italian basics. One dessert per night, usually home made. A nice old man who cooked and spoke only Italian. And a nice young man who helped him named Giuseppe.
Leaving the island after the first day there, the ferry again passed close to the wreck. This time as I stared at it, it finally hit me: after all the pictures on the internet I’d seen of the wreck lying almost flat on its side, with the fin-like stabilizer plane stuck up in the air almost halfway back from the bow, and the huge gash that started more than two thirds of the way back and ended near the stern, I finally saw what had happened. The ship must have been turning sharply as it hit the rock. So sharply, in such a panicked turn, that it was practically moving sideways.
That’s how the several-meter-long stabilizer passed the rock undamaged. That’s why the front two thirds of the side of the ship was untouched. As the captain turned to starboard too late, and realizing his mistake, turned very hard, he pushed the rudder full over, which would have swung the stern sharply out to port, directly toward the rock. I imagined his horror at that moment as he turned hard, hoping against all reason that somehow the rock could be avoided. Apparently, his reason never returned. His panic continued as he refused to believe his misfortune, delayed the call for help, then fled the ship and called a taxi to go find dry socks.
Back in Porto Santo Stafano after my first day on the island, I bought a new camera, rested in my room, then went out to Bar da Gerry again to have dinner. Giuseppe was glad to see me. He recommended the fish that night, caught fresh and broiled. While I waited, two more men came in, so that we three were each seated with a laptop, all facing toward the door. We all started talking amongst ourselves and with Giuseppe. I asked Giuseppe to take a picture of the three of us. It was like a little news room.
The fish was excellent. White and tender and fresh, just baking it and adding a bit of salt was all it needed. And for dessert there was home-made panna cotta with a choice of sauces. It was excellent. This was truly the kind of food that people love Italy for. I started to think, “I came for the wreck, I stayed for the food.”
The second day on the island I finally got the view I wanted, a dramatic view along the length of the ship from rocks along the shore. The little harbor was behind it in the distance. I had followed the same route as the day before, but this time the police didn’t stop me from going to the second peninsula. From that vantage point, you could really see how huge the ship was, and appreciate the angle it was lying at. The ship is so big it occurred to me that it wasn’t the ship that was tilted but the landscape itself. I took a picture that oriented with the ship instead of the horizon to show this. I basked in the sun and the warm glow of a goal achieved.
Around 3 in the afternoon, the police disappeared entirely. I went back to the first peninsula and walked all the way out. I stood by the little tent you’ve seen in pictures of the ship. There were workers there who said the area was closed, but it wasn’t their job to make me leave. I tried to soak in the moment of being so close to the huge hulk, almost underneath the projecting yellow funnel. But somehow the festive colors of the cruise ship kept the moment from being solemn or significant. It just was.
In the end I stayed three nights in the little hotel by the harbor, and I ate three dinners at the same little restaurant. Giuseppe was very kind and friendly. By the third night, I started to get to know him a bit. He insisted that he didn’t work there, he was just helping the owner. He had finished a masters in logistics of international aid organizations and was offered a job overseas, but then broken his leg badly in a motorcycle accident before he could go. So he came back home to Porto Santo Stefano to heal and have a series of operations. He plans to resume his career this summer after one more operation.
Of course, being in Italy, one of the first things I had tried to find was gelato. I saw plenty of signs for stores selling gelato. But when I asked them where the gelato was, they invariably pointed at a case holding cheap ice cream snacks, factory-made popsicles and tubs. You see, “gelato” in Italian really does just mean ice cream, all ice cream. After realizing that, I learned not to get my hopes up when I saw the word. I learned that what we think of as gelato is called “gelato artigianale.” For three days I looked for gelato artigianale, but in PS Stefano and on Giglio all the gelato places were closed for the season. It wouldn’t be until stopping in Rome on the way back t the airport that I would find proper gelato. And strangely enough, the mediocre gelato in Rome was completely eclipsed by the magical gelato I found at the airport (Terminal 3, after security).
On the fourth day I checked out of the hotel and walked to Bar da Gerry for a last capuchino and to say goodbye. But Giuseppe wasn’t there yet, so I left my backpack with Gerry and went for a walk up to the fort and around the historic town. The fort was built in the 17th century by the Spanish, who apparently conquered this corner of Italy then. After that, I walked down staircases and through tiny ancient alleys to the main town square, also on the water, like a little St. Marks square stolen from Venice. I was after three days finally starting to explore the beautiful secrets of this little port town. I bought some souvenirs for loved ones, and as I wandered back to Bar da Gerry, I pondered what a wonderful little break this time in Italy had been. Maybe it wasn’t the best reason to go to Italy, but I realized, it was a wonderful excuse.