It’s Just Around the Next Corner…

October 18, 2010

The other experience of getting lost was not exactly getting lost, either. This time, I knew where I was, where I was going, and how I was going to get there. I was walking from my youth hostel, a little outside Florence, to a hill town called Fiesole, a little more outside Florence. My trusty (by now) GPS told me it was only a mere 2.7 km walk – I could do that before breakfast.

So I set off at 8.20, the morning after the night before. GPS told me that I should be able to turn right at the youth hostel door, and there was a road there that looked promising, but the person at reception said I should go down to the main road, turn right, then turn right again. That should have alerted me right there. Still, all unsuspecting, I walked out.

After half an hour, I asked two girls. They said I was on the right track and pointed me to the nearest bus stop. But can I walk it?

Sure, they said, we’re walking ourselves.

They strode of, assuring me it would take about half an hour. I sauntered off in their wake. Fifteen minutes later, a bus roared past me and rolled to a stop just ahead of me. I decided not to take it, thinking I just had another 15 minutes to walk.

In psychology, there is a theory that once you make a slightly wrong decision, you will keep making stupid decisions in an attempt to justify that first wrong decision.

As I walked on an on and on, no less than six buses shot past me and I trudged despairingly past ten bus stops, but I didn’t reverse my decision to not take a bus. The result was that I reached Fiesole at 9.50, just in time for the opening of various monuments at 10. I wasn’t particularly tired, and it was a scenic walk, albeit uphill, but it was just mentally very difficult to set out on a 40-minute, 3-km stroll and find yourself walking an endless 6 km in 90 minutes instead.

But the other time that I got lost, I really did get lost. I’d gone to see the catacombs just outside Rome. I didn’t have a map of this region, but I thought the signage was good enough to get me there. It was. I took a bus, which dropped me on a lonely country road. I walked along a quiet, scenic, curving road with no traffic and huge villa estates on either side, and no people. After 15-20 minutes, I reached the catacombs. They were closed. No matter, I walked another five minutes and came to the next enclosure of catacombs. They were open.

After I’d finished with the catacombs, I asked for directions to Villa Quintili. They were complicated, involving two unspecified buses at distant stops. In any case, I would first have to walk to the first bus stop.

I set off briskly around 10.15, but soon got dustracted by a beautiful structure that turned out to be the mausoleum of some rich old woman. As I left that enclosure around 11, I asked the woman at the ticket counter for directions. She assured me that Villa Quintili was a mere 3 km down the road. That, of course, is an eminently walkable distance, and infinitely easier than finding multiple buses in this remote area where English-speakung people were difficult to find,

So I started walking again. It was a very pleasant walk now. It was Sunday morning and people were out in large numbers, walking, jogging, and cycling. No wonder Italians are all so slim – even very elderly people were walking faster than me – and I was already walking at a fairly brisk pace, I thought. Those who were jogging and cycling looked terrifyingly fit.

Anyway, after an hour or so of this lovely walk along the cobblestone road under shady trees and with no vehicular traffic… I began to wonder about the Italian measure of kilometers. Three?

After an eternity, I came to a road that had traffic. Hallelujah! Now I could get a bus.

Not so fast. I happened to be on a one-way going the wrong way. There were some women running some kind of stall. I asked them the way to the Villa and they said something like, oh, just follow the road for a bit and when you come to the intersection, take a right. How far, I asked in a worried tone. One km, they said, and waggled their hands to indicate ‘more-or-less. I have read XXX book, I should have known then, what to expect.

I followed the road for a good half hour before finding an intersection. Fed up and literally very foot sore, I looked for a bus. If I’d found one, I’d have taken it pretty much regardless of where it was going. The best I could hope for, by then, was a bus heading home. But at 12.30 on Sunday afternoon, in a remote little part of the countryside, buses were in short supply.

I limped along a little further, found a bus stop, and stopped. The sign was uninformative – none of the places on the route were remotely familiar. Now what should I do? Despairingly, I turned on GPS and searched for Villa Quintilli. No result was found. I tried again, with a single ‘l’. And GPS promptly told me that the nearest result was 850m away on the right.

I stared at it disbelievingly. Villa Quintili had become something of a holy grail by now, not because of any known intrinsic value but only due to its elusiveness. 850m? I could walk it, I suppose.

I would have been willing to give up at that point and if a bus had come, I would have got on to it. But… When I studied the classical archaeology module at the end of last year, villas were one of the things that I’d particularly focused on and discussed in my assignment. To come this close to seeing one and yet be defeated…

Tired and almost tearful, I turned my back to the bus stop and trudged on. The road curved ahead and merged with a very busy main road, with four lanes on each side and no pavement. In Italy, traffic drives on the right of the road. The Villa, GPS informed me, was on the right. But it was suicidal, so I crossed, rather dangerously, to the left, where there was a slip road that was a lot safer to walk on. A few minutes later, I asked one gentleman, who very sweetly in fluent Italian explained to me exactly where the villa was.

Actually, by this time I could see the ruins. It was vast and surrounded by wilderness. It was lovely. And it was really far away!

But the kind gentleman and the GPS were right about the entry to the villa, it was indeed just across the road from where I was now.

From the entry point, the ruins themselves were another 5-10 minutes’ stroll uphill, but now it didn’t matter. Now I was in the villa complex and I even had a very illegible photocopy of a map. Now I wasn’t looking, any more, I had arrived. My tiredness vanished and I spent two very happy hours scrambling around the ruins in solitary splendour.

Getting back, of course, was much easier. I crossed the road, got a bus, stayed on it till the end, then got off and took the metro. Simple.

The long, tiring hunt for the villa did not make it any sweeter when I found it, but I’m glad I found it, not only because I really wanted to see it and it really was very lovely, but also because it would have been very disappointing to spend all that time and energy looking for it and then leave without seeing it. As so often in life, it was just a matter of keeping on going. But in this case, at least I had the GPS to guide me. What a (corny) metaphor.

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