Life After The Concordia, Giglio Island’s Titans Salvaging Tourism

“The trip can be extended and the route changed by unanimous vote of the passengers”. Such was the wonderful concluding clause of the official programme of the world’s first cruise which departed Brooklyn, NY in June of 1867. The semantics which separate this from mutiny, usually subject to the most severe of maritime punishments, frankly are beyond me. However, had such a clause been in place when the captain of the Costa Concordia set his course-to-impress from Civitavecchia in Tuscany to Marseilles on the Cote d’Azur on January 13th 2012 the following might have been avoided…

By chance, as most of my travelling seems to be these days, I spent one night on the Tuscan island of Giglio in early June. This was the island Captain Schettino crashed his Costa Cruise Concordia into on January 13th 2012. The ship never used to dock or even tender to the island. However…

… locals speak of how the Concordia would often pass by the island, too close and too fast. Sailing right past the trafficked harbour exit, she would, they say, whizz past, come in close and in a nod to their beautiful Giglio island, hoot her horn three times. The passengers loved it. So perhaps something along these lines was another Italian accident (Pompeii crumbling insulae, Cinque Terre landslides) waiting to happen?

Mark Twain’s ship was the Quaker City. The cruise was to last a year and have a capacity of 150 passengers. For the very first of its kind, it was to innovate several modern day staples of the cruising world; a printing press onboard to issue a daily ships newspaper, musical entertainment, daily excursions and captains dinners. A ticket cost the sum of 1250 dollars with a suggested budget of 5 dollars per day (in gold) to cover shore expenses. However, here comparisons end. Onboard were placed 22 guns to be able to fire off a suitable response to the Royal Salutes she was expected to be greeted by en route, excursions as far inland as Milan, Paris and Verona were planned, lasting several days and the passenger list was to be approved by committee.

There is an undeniable sense of the morbid about the frantic eruption of shutters from countless cameras as the Concordia comes into sight. Lenses are pointed north towards the wreck, only later people remember or rather sheepishly notice that the island is beautiful also and turn to the South. Like thousands of visitors since January I am impressed by the truly unnatural and almost surreal sight of the boat keeled at such an improbable angle that I too let rip and shoot off thirty or so photos before we’ve even docked. Gangplank down we en-masse, single file, scuttle off to the right, one family seemingly the only takers of the ‘Guided Tour of the Island’ publicised over the loudspeakers onboard. Shop keepers, hotel owners, leave us alone. They know there is no point in tempting us until we have all made it to the northern tip of the harbour and onto the rocks from where it does not take a Capa or Cartier-Bresson to work out the best shot can be had.

After the obligatory shot, my tracks departed from the well-trodden. Following a nine hundred year old mule trail I hiked to ‘Castello’, the medieval village high above the Port, where few tourists venture. I met Ezio a famous pizza maker and was invited to taste his delicious crema di limoncello. He told me of the rumours of the 25 year old Moldovan tour rep, who’d supposedly distracted the Neapolitan ‘Captain Coward’ at the crucial moment. He had time; the tourists were snapping away a couple of hundred feet below. Back at the port I met ‘Don X’ refereeing from his perch on the harbour wall a game of girls beach soccer. He himself had bought the goals and organised tournaments for eight years. Everyone had time and wanted to talk. But most not of the disaster which had claimed more than 30 victims and flashed images of Giglio around the world. They wanted to talk of their island, its beauty, customs and traditions. Caught up in the spirit of talk, I innocently asked the five Titan workers who sat down each with a gelato how things were going. ‘You have to ask Costa’ was the curt answer.

There is really no such thing as Italy. There are regions, cities and villages, but Italy as a nation is a myth. This is not the time to delve into a subject on which volumes have been written, however Italians after centuries of having no state to speak of, followed by one and of half of losing faith in the countless post unification governments, have it in their genes now to distrust what they are being told ‘from above’. The one thing I did get from the five gelato eating Titan workers was from a girl; ‘hmm, that’s interesting’ she said and seemed to mean it. She was replying to my comment that islanders seem to have no faith in the ship being gone by February. For all anyone knows, Titan might be way ahead of the game; the Concordia only a painful memory come autumn. But to convince a people programmed to mistrust, it needs more public relations work than logos on posters and a promise of back to normal by February.

I left the next day with the feeling of something gone wrong. The previous evening I’d sought out wifi at a harbour-side cafe and written a letter to Costa public relations. Thus I’d followed the instruction of the Titan workers, unwilling or prohibited from, answering any questions. I wrote and told them how much information was missing here, how no one seems to know what is going on. Was there a Costa representative on the island? Someone dealing with public relations? I admitted I was not at all researched in the ins and outs of the whole sorry saga. Indeed when I’d left from Porto S. Stefano the previous day, the only reason I knew Giglio was the place to expect the Concordia was as a friend had told to me make sure I got photos. But despite their sponsoring of events and employment of the seemingly expert Titan to salvage the ship, Costa’s actions don’t seem to be translating into goodwill, I told them.

Less than 24 hours on Giglio and something changes you. As the Maregiglio ferry departs the next morning, far fewer are the pictures taken of the sorry figure of the Concordia. Of course we all took them on the way in, but I think it is more than that. Talking to locals you remember or perhaps discover what the place is about. That long before Captain Coward decided to impress with his ill-fated ‘sail-by’, there was a spirit and a beauty to the place that made it the destination for the discerning Elba and Capri avoiding traveller. It is impossible not to think of the two souls still trapped and now probably lost forever in the hull and you become almost ashamed to take pictures. Who takes pictures of a crash on the motorway after all?

On the one hour journey back to the mainland, the sea once again brings out the best in people. Almost in unison we wave to every boat we past and echoing our sentiments they wave back. To the human race, waving and greeting seem to return as a natural instinct when we are at our most vulnerable. We signal to fellow walkers that we are unarmed by showing them our hands. Perhaps we wave at sea to show we are not pirates or that here, at the mercy of the elements, there are friends close by. We have all left behind and all too vivid memorial to how vulnerable we can be at sea after all. So we wave. And are waved back to.

Back in Porto S. Stefano, from where the Giglio ferries depart, the locals seem keen to hear news from the island. Many gather around my camera to see photos of the special rig brought in only the previous evening. This is fresh news; fact, not rumours. Here there is a feeling that, though of course not to blame for the accident, islanders, today complaining about the ‘quality’ of the tourists who visit, meaning they don’t spend enough in their eyes, have brought this on themselves. Laura, the owner of my little one-star hotel says; ‘as soon as it happened they (the Giglio business owners) put their prices up.’ ‘Did you eat?’ she asked. ‘Avrai speso un botte di soldi’, you must have spent a barrel of money. Actually I hadn’t. I have no barrel to spend and had preferred take away pizza on the pier, feet in the Mediterranean and a shop bought beer, but prices on the waterfront did indeed seem high.

I was once working on a cruise around the Mediterranean when after docking in Crete we were suddenly subjected to an impromptu inspection. Or so it seemed. Being on the inside of things in my capacity as a tour guide, I learned that we were having the proverbial inspection book thrown at us in punishment for that very same Captain and ship hitting the dock the week before, but quite literally sailing off into the horizon hoping incredibly that ‘no one would notice’. In a world gone mad with speed, our poor Captain would have known very well that if he did things by the book and declared what was no more than a bump into Crete, we’d be delayed. The next stop is always the island of Santorini, where we have about five hours to get 3000 passengers up a donkey track, round the village and back down. Five hours! Mark Twain must be turning in his grave. Perhaps the Concordia Captain, now very much the villain of the piece, was under similar pressure, who knows?

At the end of his cruise Mark Twain, to meet an urgent deadline, wrote a rather scathing letter of his experience. A year later, having had time to reflect he wrote; ‘I am moved to confess that day by day the mass of my memories of the excursion have grown more and more pleasant as the disagreeable incidents of travel which encumbered them flitted one by one out of my mind- and now, if the Quaker City were weighing her anchor to sail away on the very same cruise again, nothing could gratify me more than to be a passenger’. The tragedy of the Concordia lies in the fact 35 victims will never be able to make such a decision. The remaining survivors of this horrific ordeal will certainly be forgiven for never wishing to set foot on another ship. But for the rest of us travel with is discomforts, challenges and at times inherent dangers, should never be abandoned. So travel to Giglio, not for the monument to travel gone wrong, and travel at its worst, but for the beauty and reality of the place, to meet Ezio and taste his pizzas, to stay in Xs hotel and to watch a beach football game refereed by Don X. This is travel at its best.

Mark Twain did also make one more comment. ‘Perdition take all guides’, he wrote. Hmm…

~ by 2ndcupoftea on June 16, 2012.

One Response to “Life After The Concordia, Giglio Island’s Titans Salvaging Tourism”

  1. […] foto della nave da crociera Costa Concordia vista dallo spazio, a poche centinaia di metri dall’Isola del […]

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