The train stops in the middle of nowhere. There are very few of us that alight in Civitavecchia – a soldier with a ridiculous Tyrolean hat, an English couple (university lecturers would be my best guess) and me with my little suitcase on wheels. There are no taxis or buses or trams to be seen so after considering our options, the lecturers and I start walking in the direction of the town that we can see in the distance. The soldier stays at the station.
Civitavecchia is a little more than an hour by train from Rome. The ITF have informed me that there is an abandoned crew there. In actual fact, when I arrive in Italy there are twelve abandoned crews in Italian ports: one in Génova; one in Ancona; two in Sicily; one in Bari; another in Palermo; another in Livorno… The economic crisis has already made waves at sea and it has left a lot of bodies in the water.
I decide to head for Civitavecchia because the contrast between a town full of cruise ships and an abandoned crew seems pretty extreme to me. It is something that I have been finding since I started my voyage around the Mediterranean. Cruise ship passengers from all over the world disembark in this port in order to go and visit Rome. Then they continue their journey around the Mediterranean. Civitavecchia is just a station town, a place of transit. Or perhaps it fits into a new category invented in this Mediterranean of contrasts: the cruise ship town.
I suppose that it is one of these non-places that European photographers look for when they are doing the Las Vegas-Miami route. The transitory is represented in their images. According to convention a non-place is somewhere that does not have sufficient identity to be a place but that is, in its own way, as it perfectly represents emptiness.
I must get a move on because one of the ITF coordinators in Italy is waiting for me and I am already late. I arrived at this same port by sea in August. I was on a cargo ship and I only saw the silhouette of the place to which I am now walking. There are very different approximations of the town. Via maris – I imagined what Civitavecchia would be like from the deck of the cargo ship on which I was travelling. Just as the Ancient Greeks did, I formed an image in my mind. I whimsically included and excluded whatever I wanted. It was as easy and enjoyable as floating face up in water and observing the battling cloud formations accompanied by nothing more than silence, the murmur of the sea and imagination.
I am now about to arrive in Civitavecchia by foot via a causeway. I know that the exercise of imaginary enjoyment that the water allows is no longer possible. I have to stick to what I can see. I never realised that there was an abandoned crew back then. In fact, from what I now know we arrived in Italy on almost the same day. It was the 3rd August for them, and the 5th August for me. We were both on the same quay and we both arrived through the same port entrance.
How the view changes when you choose what you are going to pay attention to! Since I started the voyage that first thing that I do when I arrive in a port is look for old ships. The same happens if I am flying over a port in a plane or passing by one in a car. If there are some I will look to see if there is an indication of abandonment. They always look the same: a rusting hull, a neglected deck, some washing on a line (a sign that someone is there) and general state of deterioration.
Civitavecchia feels grey at the moment. Trajano built this port and it has the stamp of Michelangelo. I know that Stendhal was the French consul here. However, the first building that I encounter leaves me worried that there is nothing left of this glorious past. Has the tourism juggernaut erased everything authentic and replaced it with an artificial metropolis? I am not giving a second thought about the two Brits walking in front of me. Now and again they turn and look at me. Thanks to my tan they have no doubt mistaken me for a local who knows the place and the path. I do not bother to correct the misapprehension.
I stop immediately I catch sight of the port of Civitavecchia. In front of me there is a jigsaw of cruise ships. All of them are an immaculate white. They gleam of luxury and have no hint of the sea. It seems incredible to me that they are moored in the Tirreno Sea where there is an abandoned crew. I can hardly see the water. I can only see luxury. How many seas does the Mediterranean have? I still do not know. I am in a non-city in a non-sea looking for a non-crew. In an exercise to confirm and aggrandise national identity Italian flags are flying both at sea and on land. Only Berlusconi’s Italy is capable of offering something like this to those arriving here. I imagine it is a strategy to remind foreigners that they have arrived in Italy. “Cruise ship passenger! Yes, you! Two days ago you were in Barcelona and you paid a quick visit to the Miramar view point, you strolled down Passeig de Gràcia and you gazed up at the Sagrada Familia from your coach window. Your whole tour was in a cruise company coach and you had less than fifteen minutes in each place to have a look around. Eight hours ago you were in Marseille, or perhaps it was not Marseille. The castle that you now remember (and that you photographed) was Bellver Castle in Mallorca. Already you are unsure. Now you are in Civitavecchia in Italy, make no mistake about that.”
Cruises are like one of the many advertisements for detergents. They make you think that after using them you will feel cleaner. Cruises promote a happy, entertained life and, above all, safety in an uncertain world. The first time that I saw an advert for a cruise I was on the island of Cozumel in another sea, the Caribbean. It is a Mexican island that has serious problems as these large ships are irreparably damaging the reefs and the island can longer provide the necessary quantities of depilatory wax for the passengers. They stop in Cozumel to depilate! The island is so natural that they never considered the issue of waste management. Now they have too much depilated hair. The advertisement for the vessel was something like: “The safest holidays in the world”.
A swarm of Americans almost ran me over on the first zebra crossing. They arrived in town this morning. They are heading to Rome on a private coach so they will not see Civitavecchia. They do not even use local transport which would, one way or the other, give them some contact with local people.
Is there really an abandoned crew in this Lego brick port? The ITF area coordinator is meeting me in front of the Port Authority in an hour. The noise of the little wheels of my suitcase attracts the attention of a kiosk owner. She has depilated eyebrows just like the Italian tourists in Barcelona. I pass in front of the San Francisco church and I go up a cobbled street. The owner of a book shop also looks up when she hears the noise of my suitcase. The wind is unrelenting and I am reeling. I curse the kilos that I have lost during this trip. Cold weather has arrived in the Mediterranean and I have arrived in Italy.
It is not the first time that I have been in a Mediterranean station town. In their own way Ceuta and Algeciras also qualify for this sobriquet. Cruise ships arrive in Barcelona and their passengers walk up and down the Rambla. In this way, they absorb the urban landscape. I would venture that the town either engulfs them or conceals them. Here it is different: Civitavecchia has recycled the coming and going of the cruise ships and their cargo. The quayside is the epicentre of life just like the markets, the agoras, the public baths and the auctions were in the past. I try to spot a type of flag advertising modern facilities to recent arrivals that they hang from hotel balconies. I read some graffiti demanding the expulsion of immigrants. They had told me that this region, Lacio, is the area of Italy with the most regular outbreaks of xenophobia. I have found evidence of this on a wall and I have only just entered the town.
I have to hurry because the ITF has organised a meeting with the harbour master to ask him for permission. Passes, interviews, rules – it is the first time that this has happened. One way or another on this trip, I have always managed to skip port bureaucracy. However, I have been warned that trying to do so here is impossible. Whoever enters the port must have official permission.
I organise hotel accommodation and I head to the port. Why do they name ships Princess, Royal, or Legend? Whoever baptizes cruise ships clearly has a highly developed sense of monarchical kitsch. Just like my container ships (I have been verbalizing my feelings for them through the use of the possessive for some time now) they are genuine colossi. They are all moving steel and strength personified. However, with these names they lose all credibility.
I descend the steps that lead directly to Michelangelo’s Fort. The huge 500 year old towers there were, in the past, used to observe the enemy. The wind is so strong that I occasionally have to take refuge in the lee of the rocks. The ITF coordinator is standing waiting for me. He says that he hopes the harbour master will decide to give us passes. An exercise in patience does not even to begin to describe what ‘waiting’ means in Italy. There are maps, nautical charts, mappaemundi and portolans on the walls of the harbour master’s offices, just like on ships. However, here they are purely decorative as, unlike a vessel, these buildings will never run the risk of being shipwrecked. Neither will they run the risk of turning into a prison for their occupants. Here there are ringing telephones and people wearing impeccably fashionable uniforms. It is a hive of activity and a continuous stream of people coming and going.
“Can I help you, signorina?” I check the number of stripes on his jacket and decide he is of sufficient rank to be the boss. In addition, he will not want to upset me as I come from “incredible Barcelona”. We are given passes.
Wednesday. Moored at Pier 13.