Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Quest

The planning for this trip began 30 years earlier and was concluding in the worst thunderstorm I'd ever experienced in Italia. We were just outside of Naples. The wheezing cadence of the wipers sweeping across our windshield feverishly attempted to do my bidding, however feeble, in the face of this interminable storm. At the moment I was in the process of navigating the merge from highway A16 onto the rush of the A1 Autostrada coming south from Rome. Between the lunatic howls of the storm, the torrential downpour and the whir of the wipers, we were lucky to hear our cell phone ring above the tumultuous din and then only barely when fortune had us pass beneath an overpass.

It was Rony calling from a train inbound to Naples. We were doing our darnedest, the weather be damned, to meet him and his wife, Malca, at the Stazione Centrale in Piazza Garibaldi. Decades earlier, we had become friends while attending graduate school. At the time he was an Israeli Air Force officer attending the Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio. Our time together there laid a lasting foundation. The advent of the Internet had made it possible to keep in touch over the years and now we were about to renew our friendship with this rendezvous in Naples.

We survived our stormy arrival and found each other in a melee of construction, fellow travelers and panhandlers, who seemingly wore too much gold, in that frenzied section of Naples around the rail station. Following a drag of their luggage across the piazza, where I honestly believe the wheels of suitcases go to detach and die, we were off on a week of adventures. Our quest to renew our friendship, while experiencing Italy together, had begun. We enjoyed many adventures in the rush of days which followed but the spine of this narrative concerns our brief visit to Trani, located, like Vieste, half a peninsula away from Calitri on the Adriatic coast of Puglia.

Trani, referred to as “The Pearl of Puglia” lies south of Vieste and north of Bari. Like Vieste it is beautiful in its seaside allure but it is more of a working city with lesser tourist charm to it than Vieste. Entry to the town is along a long avenue running perpendicular to the sea. It is a stone and quarry area telling from the towering sawhorse-shaped cranes used to move large white stone slabs around the yards. This colonade of metallic griffins brings you to the sea and Trani.

The southern part of Trani is new and all business, while the northern section, especially the old city center, is old and curves around an elegant port which could be called ‘pearl-like’ indeed from its shape. A fleet of commercial fishing boats displaying a ruggedized, though rusty working class countenance makes its home here in tacit coexistence with a private flotilla of chicy fiberglass vessels designed for a good time. Peace is maintained through clearly defined areas much like boxers are assigned opposite corners of a ring, although in this case it’s more of a circle. They respectfully nod to each other as they bob in the chop inside the shelter of the harbor. The harbor is formed by the slender fingers of opposing seawalls - like forefinger opposed to thumb and the formidable backdrop of stone block piers alive in the traffic of the port. A carefree chaos of nets, cables, traps of various kind and sizes dot the waterfront amidst a dynamic of scooters, lorries and pedestrians. Overlooking all this commotion by the sea, as if it were a mezzanine before an opera on life, stretches a gallery of restaurants themselves each casting nets and setting their own ‘fixed menu’ traps for all who may pass their way.

Wandering the hallway-like back streets, we came upon a fish market, which took up an entire piazza. Interestingly, it was completely covered to protect the daily market in all weather, fair or foul, such is its importance to daily life there. There were some critters flopping about that I’d never seen before. One in particular looked like the spawn of hell. Small, rusty stone-looking with sharp spikes it kind of challenged you …. go ahead just try cooking me. Yeah, maybe as stone soup!

A visit to Trani, or anywhere else in Italy for that matter, would be remiss if it didn't include the interior of a church or two. Just beyond the fish market and totally by chance, because we were walking blindly, we discovered the ‘Church of All Saints’ on Via Ognissanti. Unfortunately it was closed tight. I’ve discovered since our visit that it is rarely ever open to the public. We read about its historic significance on a plaque outside (see photo album). Through the bars of a high-arched Romanesque portico we could make out the heraldic crusade insignia of the Knights Templar who built this place in the 12th century. Here was a place that could have served ably as a setting in “The Da Vinci Code”. Disappointed because we couldn't get inside, Maria Elena and Malca took solace on a bench across from the church entrance while Rony and I sought out some late morning refreshments.

We didn't have far to go. Only steps away we found a 'pasticceria' (pastry shop). Inside the aroma of sweets and baked breads was enough to make a diabetic nervous. More on the plump side than lean, I just smiled. It was as if the bread, which I assumed was still hot, was begging me to rub it with garlic and then douse it with newly pressed olive oil! It was too early in the day for that, so instead, I selected some confectioned brioche, which was behaving more precociously.

As we loitered opposite All Saints Church enjoying our snacks, a man on foot approached the gate. To our surprise he produced a long black iron key and proceeded to unlock the gate and open the church. Things were looking up. Shortly afterwards, we followed him inside. There we found him busy arranging a table to display some literature. He'd already turned on a sound system which evoked a haunting liturgical chant. The sound filled the shadowy interior and only added to the spiritual mood of this fairy tale place. The long narrow central interior consisted of a wide main isle flanked either side by lesser isles demarcated by arched porticos running the length of the church. The finely carved details of the capitals atop the supporting pillars were disappearing which gave you a sense for the age of this space. If these walls could only speak of the events that had unfolded here …

Young Stephen of Normandy, son of Maurice, felt the encroaching fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar. He was totally unaccustomed to such feelings. His familiar world, a world he could easily control, was being transcended by ever increasing foreignness.

Everything around him now seemed alien here in this place, on this strange shore, called Trani. Foreign indeed – even the language he could hear around him and the stars overhead, which he’d know so well since boyhood, appeared alien. Already he’d seen one of those strange tall trees – they called them palm trees – that afforded neither shade nor a source of lumber. What bewitched manner of nature was this?

Here inside this church, in cool retreat from the heat outside and bathed in the soft cant of the Latin prayers he heard interspersed in the muffled clank of metal, he surrendered to his feelings and found comfort, however faint and brief. His was of the soldier world of the marshal knight – defender of the true faith, scourge of the Risen Lord.

He drifted away into his thoughts and recalled this move away from the familiar that began upon leaving his home in France. He, along with other brave knights, had first traveled south and upon finally reaching Marseilles had boarded ships for Italy. From there he’d traveled by land to this distant new shore on the Adriatic called Trani.

He was but one of many in this holy army of God now converging in Trani. From these shores he and many like him would depart on the morning tide on the final phase of this journey. Their destination was the Holy Land. Soon now, he would embark in the name of his God, for glory, adventure and for wealth from merciless conquest. Already the armada of Venetian transport ships had begun to depart.

Bathed in the cool embrace of the metal and the coolness of this Knights Templar stone church, he could think. Sword and semitar, sea and sand flashed through his mind. Already he had renewed the oath of a Crusader and vowed as both pilgrim and soldier to complete his armed pilgrimage to reclaim the Holy Land. For success in this quest, he was on his knees in the candle light of All Saints Church, before this altar, with the pointed tip of his drawn sword pivoting on the stone floor before him. Kneeling there, his forehead pressed into the crossed hilt of his long-sword, the slow approach of the priest administering the last rites, snapped him back to the present. Please God, let me do thy will. Protect and strengthen me for what lies ahead, for what lies beyond these walls and beyond the shores of Trani.

We were inside for all of about fifteen minutes. Two or three other people eventually wandered in and left during this period. As we departed, once again emerging onto Via Ognissanti, it was odd to see the caretaker leave with us. He never said a word as he swung the weather-beaten iron gate closed, locked it and then departed on foot up a side street as quickly as he’d materialized, as though this had all been a mirage.

Odd also was the apparent apparition that materialized in one of my photos (see photo album). Floating just above a solitary bare pillar centered in one of the lesser niches is the shimmering image of something yet nothing - a shard of light, the glint from the window overhead, an optical quirk in my lens, or something else? Look close and decide for yourself.

Far more germane to life in Trani today is the Cattedale, the Trani Cathedral. It is like a set of Russian nested-dolls wherein three churches lie one inside the other. At mid level is Santa Maria della Scala positioned above a 4th century church, which was most likely the first church in Trani. The crypt in this foe basement first-church was so dark that we had to open our cell phones in order to see. As we crept through the space, hesitantly testing where to trust our next footstep to, it occurred to me that such a dangerous situation was something OSHA (an agency for the enforcement of health and safety legislation) would never countenance in the States. They would close this place down in a flash until adequate lighting was installed and possibly even insist on a fire suppression system in this rock cavern!

Above this foundation of chapels, the ossuary with its bones and the dark crypt lies the grand cathedral itself. Surprisingly, it was just a flight of steps away. Climbing them, we emerged into the midst of an elegant wedding underway in this towering and resplendent sanctuary. This was a little different from our tradition, it being midweek and a wedding underway. In classic style, the looming vastness of the main isle was flanked its entire length by lesser naves demarcated by two rows of towering paired columns. The bride and groom sat on pillow-cushioned stools before the altar in the midst of this elegant stone grandeur. Not invited of course, we quietly delighted in the simple beauty of this place as we worked our way toward the main entrance.

After hours of wondering the lanes and back streets I thought food was in order. It was time for a late lunch. We suspected we would find excellent local cuisine and we were not disappointed. After some dithering we settled on the 'Rosa dei Venti' (Rose of the Winds) located in an enchanting corner of the port on Via Statuti Marittimi. We’d chosen wisely. The Rosa sits on a panoramic terrace overlooking the port. The Templer's church was behind us now. Its single lancet window on the curved apse gathering up light from across the port to fill its interior as it had for centuries.

At the Rosa we were treated as VIPS by Verrigni Pasquale, the owner, and especially by Mario, our waiter. Mario was an especially interesting soul. Usually the tourist takes the photos but with roles momentarily reversed, he took pictures of us! He was both waiter and salesman. His quest was to convert non-believers to Herbalife, a nutrition and weight management company. As he explained it, his life’s journey was testament and living proof of its value. He told us how overweight he’d been prior to Herbalife and how since then he’d become healthy and trim. And here all this time I’d always thought it was the Mediterranean diet or in this case, the Adriatic diet! He wore a tuxed-like uniform with a wide cummerbund at his midline. We had a good time together jousting and joking and before we left he removed his velcro waistband to prove he wasn’t simply holding it all in. I think Mario had a good time that day, we certainly did.

What about the food? The food was scrumscious. Maria Elena and I enjoyed an excellent Mare e Terra (surf and turf) luncheon (see photo album for menu and shots of what we ate). Mare had the surf and I ordered the turf, all the while with an implied understanding that we’d share and we did.

We all have quests, those sometimes long and difficult pursuits that drive us each day to put our feet on the floor and get out of bed. For the four of us, that day, our quest was to together see and experience Trani, one pearl in this beautiful obsession I know as Italy. Here was something completely new and different, though ancient and familiar to the thousands who call it home. For the bride and groom that day it was most likely a quest realized and a dream just begun. For Mario, one of its inhabitants, it is undoubtedly his nutritional side business, clearly important to him and essential to not only his, but as he’ll tell you, everyone’s life. And for the long past crusaders, Trani was a major embarkation point - gateway to adventure for some and to personal salvation for others. Sitting there as part of the quixotic diorama of this historic waterfront enjoying the last sips of our wine I might dote on the romance of this place. However, at the moment, I thought of the four of us, East meeting West actually, and if happiness truly comes from relationships, then where better place for the renewal of a friendship lasting 30 years – an honorable quest indeed.

From the Serial Traveler, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled "The Quest".

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Raid on Vieste

It's hard to believe that in these modern twenty first century times, talk of pirates and piracy still fills the pages of our daily newspapers. It happened again just the other day when the US-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama was attacked again by Somali pirates for a second time in seven months! This got me thinking about Vieste.

Vieste is a ancient fishing town of whitewash on the shores of the Adriatic Sea located high up on the most eastern part of Puglia, one of the 18 regions (think provence or state) on the Italian mainland. If, for example, you were pulling on the whimsical 'boot of Italy', your hands would be around the Gargano. This part of Puglia, known as the Promontorio del Gargano (Gargano Peninsula), is easy to find on a map because it juts from the mainland into the sea in an easterly direction. In fact, in antiquity, this mountainous peninsula was once its own separate island.

Not long ago we felt an itch for some awayness and decided to drive up the calf of Puglia to the Gargano and the town of Vieste in particular. From Calitri it's an easy two hour dash across the tomato fields of Basilicata to the Gargano. We wanted to explore the area and if it got late, remain overnight at some yet to be settled-on hotel.

We were making great time until an exit sign lured me off the highway. I think it was Margaret, our GPS navigator, who first suggested it. We soon found ourselves unintentionally driving along a coastal mountain road with fantastic, cliff-top windshield filling panoramas of the turquoise blue Adriatic laid out below us. The scenery was reminiscent of the Amalfitana drive on the left and opposite coast of Italy. The views, intermingled with the forest and citrus groves to boot, cast an incomparably alluring mood but the constant switchbacks along the coastal drive were enough to give you whiplash. Not willing to risk that, we pulled over and had an early snack, which we had brought with us, smack dab there in the middle of the Parco Nazionale del Gargano forest. We could hear the tinkle of the bells from sheep somewhere just out of sight as we ate.

A few more bites and turns later, we arrived in Vieste. Ever been to Bellagio in northern Italy? In Vieste, the deceptive waters of the Adriatic substitute for the pimpled chop of Lake Como and the lake’s millionaire mountain vistas by a seemingly never ending sea. I wouldn't say that Bellagio has a borgo telling from its neatly laid out streets rising from the lake, yet the streets and alleyways of Vieste's ‘Antico Borgo San Francesco’ have the nook and cranny feel of Bellagio. Like Bellagio, as you explore ancient Vieste, you will come across a hive of shops and restaurants. However, there is more of a lived-in aspect to this place, more like what I'm used to in bucolic Calitri. I can't imagine standing in a Bellagio street looking over a menu beside a restaurant door-front only to be startled back to the reality of the place by drops of water from today's laundry suspended overhead. In Vieste, menus and laundry coexist.

It is hard to believe that this quaint seaside haven has such a bloody history. Rivers of blood have replaced droplets of water here many times in the past. Located in such a strategic coastal location, the town was often invaded by pirates and conquerors from throughout the Mediterranean. Today, the invaders are tourists like ourselves - for Vieste is the main tourist destination of the Gargano. Things were very different, however, in the Middle Ages.

In 1240 the Holy Roman Emperor Federico II, who among his other titles was also known as the Emperor of the Kingdom of Naples, built a castle in the medieval center of Vieste as his royal fortress. It served to defend the city for many centuries from relentless onslaughts. From the number of torri (towers) located all along the extensive Italian coastline, each built to warn of an approaching raid, it is evident that this was a widespread and recurring problem. What struck me about the place was the constant recurrence of pirate attacks and Ottoman Turk invasions Vieste endured, especially during the 15th and 16th centuries. Here in Vieste the slaughter was especially horrific.

Times have changed and yet they haven't, for Frederico's castle still serves its protective role even today as home to an Italian radar warning installation. Its walls are built of stone upon the stone promontory which is Vieste. Stone, in fact, epitomizes this place. Two stones in particular, one conspicuous and the other less obvious, symbolize Vieste. One is the famous Faraglione di Vieste, a towering white monolith of rock you'd be hard pressed to miss seeing on Spiaggia del Castello. It rises high above the azure sea along the Vieste shorefront. To me, it is somehow reminiscent of a miniature Tower of Pisa and has come to symbolize Vieste.

Another much smaller, less conspicuous stone is hidden within the alleyways of the borgo itself. Unaware of its existence, we only found it by chance on Via Cimaglia. Wandering around in the old section of town we came upon an intersection of a few narrow streets. Their junction broadened into a small plaza and from the number of tables and chairs spread about, this was clearly now home to a few restaurants. What I noticed first was a simple plaque (see photo album), which was intended to drive home what had happened here. It spoke of the craggy and weathered bolder size rock directly below known as Chianca Amara (Bitter Stone). If not for this plaque, it would seem insignificant - like a million other similar stones. Legend has it, however, that this was the rock upon which, during the siege and sack of Vieste (18-26 July 1554) by Ottoman Turks, that their leader, the near-mythic privateer and later admiral Dragut Rais (Captain Dragut), ordered the slaughter of all the inhabitants who could not be used for ransom or sold as slaves. Not your comedic Johnny Depp kind of character to say the least! Nearly 5000 Viestani were reportedly beheaded on this rock. We must remember that the Muslim Turks of the Ottoman Empire, then at the height of their rule over the Mediterranean, were still smarting from the effects of the Crusades, which had ended late in the 13th century. Though they never took control of Italy perse, they plundered and ravished its coastlines continually and Dragut Rais was the main orchestrator of this gruesome atrocity and wanton havoc.

Roughly translated the plaque reads:
In the month of July 1554, Vieste, seven days after having been besieged by Draguth with seventy Galere of the great Turkish army, was in the end no longer able to defend itself. Sacked, captured and burned, with a notable prey of citizens and riches, and with losses of seven thousand souls between those captured and the dead. It was this total destruction that brought grief in all Italy. E. Bacchus, the Kingdom of Naples, 1618.

BITTER STONE

THIS IS THE STONE ON WHICH THE MASSACRE WAS COMMITTED

These same streets surely flowed red from the numbers involved that distant July day. Not surprisingly, our shock over the sanguine and almost palpable spiritual nature of the place made our decision, not to eat there and move on, all the easier for this was once a scarred hell where nothing was cooked, no one waited to be served and no one ate. Here, far distant from Mexico, was the Chichanitza 'choc-mol' of Italy.

The cuisine and the atmosphere of the place we finally settled on were both relaxing and exquisite in its simplicity. One of the enjoyments in exploring Italy is in the discovery of interesting places and its local cuisine. Vieste was no different and niether was it disappointing. We looked around for a place for a late lunch and found the Birreria del Grottino on Via Pola right by the waterfront and opposite the Faro (Lighthouse) di Sant'Eufemia.

The cozze (mussels) we enjoyed for lunch along with a bottle of chilled local white was fantastic. Internationally fantastic in fact, for when we offered a sampling to a German couple at a nearby table, they immediately ordered their own bowl of these black wonders! If you are ever in Vieste be sure to order yourself a heaping bowl or two and forget about the cholesterol for a while! Cholesterol in crustaceans is poorly absorbed anyway and extremely low in fat. Besides, disregard all this mumbo-jumbo altogether and just remember, you're on vacation! Lunch was so good that although we continued to keep an eye out as we wandered the alleyways for some place for dinner later that night, we returned to the Grottino for another go.

Yes, we did stay the night. Vieste is just too interesting and colorful not to experience by night. That late evening dinner followed by a walk through park-like Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II sealed the deal. We stayed at Hotel degli Aranci in the modern town. It was nice enough and highly rated (4 stars) but when we return for a longer seige, I'd like to try family-run Hotel Falcone (3 stars), which we came across later in the day.

Yes, ours was little more than a brief hit and run raid on Vieste. We came by land, not by sea, and in a round-about fashion at that. Our only hostages were the memories we took away while the only drops of liquid spilled were some wine on the tablecloth and various sauces on my shirt - all completely by accident, I can assure you! Oh, by the way, I now wear those spots almost like medals, reminiscent of the day we came and vanquished Vieste oursleves!

As always 'Divertiti",

Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled "Vieste".

If you would like to see a short Video on Vieste CLICK HERE.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Josie's Pasta

October, I'm told, is National Pasta Month here in the US! As a young boy way back when, I recall Wednesdays being advertised as 'Prince Spaghetti Day' and then there was always Anthony, pronounced “Ann-ton-nee” on TV, being called home for his dose of pasta by his mother as she leaned out the window and shouted his name. So now we have a whole month devoted to pasta. Imagine that, an entire month with a focus on pasta in the USA while in Italy pasta boils 24/7! You can just imagine there are few humidifier sales in Italy because of the high humidity in their homes from all the water boiling to daily prepare their beloved pasta.

I heard about National Pasta Month only after someone recently asked me where the people of Calitri did their grocery shopping. A curious question but it got me thinking about pasta and the grocery stores in Calitri, which in aggregate must contain tons of the dried concoction on their shelves.

So what better time than this month to address this topic. You know, there are reportedly over 600 varieties of these tongue-twisting doughy strings, strands, beads, noodles and tubes out there. Clearly, it’s more in the infinite number of shapes of this international favorite than in their formulary that accounts for so much variety.

But pasta’s international popularity is greater than just relying on a curiously shaped shell or limp noodle. It lies in the wonderful versatility of this soothing comfort food, which allows for infinite variations. It can be easily dressed up or down with extra ingredients, cheeses and sauces. If you are not so deft at making your own tomato sauce for instance, a simple mixture of chopped garlic, olive oil and butter is a great substitute – and there you have it, ‘Aglio & Olio’ (garlic & oil pasta sauce). Add a fiery pinch of ground peperoncino red peppers to any form of pasta and experience a wake-up call in your mouth (you may recall seeing pictures of these tasty peppers drying over doorways in past blog photo albums.)

And then there is the etiquette of eating pasta. Proper etiquette is to never use a spoon to twist your spaghetti or linguine. Instead, these types of pasta should always be served in a vessel with a well, like a bowl, where you can use the sides of the bowl to assist in the twisting and free up your other hand to sop up the ragu, sometimes called salsa, with trenchers of crusty bread.

Italian men are in love with their mothers, their cars and their pasta. Can you blame them? I have heard stories of immigrants who have returned to Italy because they missed and therefore craved the homemade pasta their mothers would prepare. Unable to find it anywhere else, some returned. Now that's amore!

Some sight Marco Polo for introducing pasta to Italy. That Venetian boy got around a lot but of all the things Marco may be credited for bringing back to Italy, pasta was not one of them. In fact, a baked pasta similar to a lasagna noodle was around during Etruscan times and the Etruscans predate the ancient Romans. But the dried variety we are familiar with today was most likely introduced in southern Italy by Arab invaders. Made of durum wheat, abundant in Sicily and in the southern Italian breadbasket on the mainland, it soon became a staple of Italian cuisine. It was much later, however, when pasta took up its affair with the tomato, recently introduced to Europe from the New World. One can only imagine that development. Did some irate chef happen to throw a handful of noodles across the room at his souchef only to have some land in a pot of bubbling tomatoes? I doubt it. In fact, that reminds me of the imagined invention of the french-fry with potato and boiling oil substituted for the pasta and boiling salsa.

It must have been the Italians as they spread around the world bringing along their need and yearning for pasta that has today made it a food so internationally well known. Pasta is today quintessentially Italian. While the Arabs may have invented macaroni, it was the Italians who made it into an international favorite. Pasta is the national food of Italy. Think of Italy and its pasta cuisine comes to mind; think of pasta and immediately Italy comes to mind. In way of proof, a check of the numbers shows that Italians eat 60 pounds of pasta per year versus the measly 20 pounds per American.

Now that you have digested all this information about pasta, where do you find it in Calitri? There must be 10 - 12 small grocery stores around town. After all, six thousand people have to buy their food somewhere. Most are what you would call 'mom & pop' operations – small establishments run by family members scattered about the neighborhoods. As of now, there is only one large chain-store operation in town, called "CONAD". It is on the scale, though still relatively small, of the large grocery store we are more familiar with.

Many of these local ‘alimentari’ are nondescript establishments, so well hidden you can't find them though you know they’re around. Such was the case with Josephine's, a typical market close to our place in Calitri. It is about the size of a neighborhood convenience store. Before a sign went up outside (see photo album), we honestly walked right by the entrance of this 'alimentari' many a time before realizing it existed behind the bijoued curtain and heavy framed metal/glass door. What a local gem it is, not only for what it contains but who it contains.

Josephine and Michele run the “Centro Market di Ragazzo Joséphine”. Josie is a jovial, almost jolly, person but a businesswoman nonetheless through and through. When she walks into ‘Mario's Caffe’ for instance, before opening up her market each morning, she practically lights up the place with her presence. She strikes me as a tireless worker - the queen of the hive as she buzzes around the store. From one moment to another, she might be assisting a customer, dealing with a salesman, inventorying a delivery out front on the street or slicing hunks of cheese when not weighing out kilos of bread. In your next breadth you could find her manning the checkout register and insuring you take your receipt just in case the finance police might be lurking outside her door checking for sales receipts. Buzz, buzz, she is just about everywhere.

There is more to Josephine’s place then just Josephine, however. There is also Michele, her husband. Michele’s lair is usually in the meat department in the rear of the market where he juggles the demands of ‘I need your immediate attention’ patrons. Mild-mannered, he is a quiet sort who I could never imagine raises his voice. Unlike Josephine, he strikes me at first look as serious minded. Like me, a steadfast serious look is simply a function of how the skin naturally lays on your face! When he recognizes you on the street, in the market or a café, his mask of seriousness melts into a broad-faced smile.

Centro Market, on Corso Matteotti, is on the medium side of size and looking up at its tastefully arched and domed ceiling you’d think you were in an Italian chapel. The check-out line by the register is nowhere as long as the line in the local post office/bank on the first of the month when it seems every pensioner in town waits patiently to tap into their government pension check. In reality, due to its small size, there is really only one main free-standing wall of shelves just behind a single file of shopping carts. An entire side of this shelving, a space consisting of five very long shelves extending from the register at the front of the market back as far as the entry to the meat department, is entirely dedicated to, what else but, pasta.

And what of that national Italian identity, pasta, for sale at Josie’s? I spent some time there recently chronicling the brands of pasta and their particular names. The variety was amazing and no doubt helps account for that 60 pound intake per capita I mentioned. Here is a sampling on just one of the five shelves, which was dedicated entirely to Barilla Pasta:

1. Tortiglioni (deep lines on the surface and a large internal cavity gather all the sauce)

2. Rigatoni (a wide, ridged, tube-shaped pasta with holes large enough to capture pieces of meat or vegetables in the sauce)

3. Penne Mezzane (cut like feather pin quills)

4. Ziti Tagliati (ziti cut w/ straight ends)

5. An empty shelf slot … I’m guessing something really popular!

6. Mezze Maniche (similar to penne but shorter and broader)

7. Conchiglie Rigate (with a graceful concave shape, reminds you of those shells you might find on the seashore)

8. Pipe Rigate (large elbow macaroni that have been pinched off at one end)9. Ditalini Lisci (small, ridged pasta tubes for soups)

10. Ditalini Rigati (thimbles)

11. Spaghetti Tagliati (think chopped spaghetti)

12. Penne a Candela (spaghetti-like rods the width of a finger – see photo album)

13. Penne Lisce (smooth-sided penne w/ quill points)

14. Penne Rigate (slender, thin w/ oblique cut ends like feather ink quills)

15. Pennettine

16. Pennette Lisce

17. Gramigna (thin, short, tubular strand of pasta in a broad spiral shape)

18. Conchigliette (tiny tiny conch shells)

19. Lumachine (tiny snail shells)

20. Farfalline (shaped like butterflies)

21. Corolini(shaped bowties)

22. Anellini

23. Tempestine (tiny bee-bees size pasta)

24. Midoline

25. Putine

26. Stelline

27. Risoni (rice-like pasta)

28. Reginette Napoletane

29. Ziti Napoletane

30. Casarecce Siciliane (cut open penne tubes)

31. Gnocchetti Sardi

32. Cellentani

33. Farfalle

34. Gemelli

35. Fusilli Bucati Corti (first appeared in southern Italy and was born from the idea of rolling spaghetti on a knitting tool)

36. Castelline (cone-shaped shells)37. Casagnette

38. Bavettine #11

39. Bavettine #13

40. Vermicelline # 7

41. Vermicelline # 8

42. Spaghetti #3

43. Spaghetti #5

There you have it. How many of these have you had? And realize, dear reader, that there are four more packed shelves of pasta besides this one, maybe 80% more, to choose from. There's still time … why not start the pot to boiling and set a goal in life to sample them all! Many an Italian has.

So my friends, if “Wonder Bread” and “SpaghettiOs” are on your shopping list, don’t bother going to Josephine’s!

As always 'Divertiti",

Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled "Josie's Pasta".

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Doorways of Calitri

I am in Italia today and I could easily fall into its lifestyle. A few local friends along the streets to chat with could easily fill the empty parts of my day. Beginning with a morning cappuccino and a seashell shaped ‘soffietto’ pastry at a local café and one thing leads to another as various patrons visit their favorite barristers.

If you need something done, no need to ‘Google’ here. Just wait a while until the appropriate tradesman passes through and you can arrange for just about anything. Here are a couple examples of what I mean – standing at the counter in Mario’s café the other day, I mentioned that the street lamp by our door was inoperative and it was repaired that very day. This for me is a record in Italy! On another day in came Amelio, the electrician, and by 10 am he was installing a satellite dish for us. Somehow, coffee diplomacy seems to work, at least here.

We have been here now long enough this time to learn which switches control what, and with Amilio’s help, even had time to add a few. I feel comfortable as if slipping into a pair of old slippers. The familiar surroundings and neighbors add to the welcoming feeling. Even the ants knew we had arrived. It wasn’t long before the tiny, pesky, sugar ants appeared to welcome us and I guess any extra sugar we could spare. A trip to Josephine’s mercato for a ‘trapola per formica’ (ant trap) soon put an end to their neighborliness, however.

In this village of Calitri, a place not yet tainted by globalization and where tradition overweighs modernity, stepping outside through our door is like stepping into another dimension, another world, somewhat akin to that scene from “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”.

With this in mind, as we made our way through the ‘antico borgo’ to church, to a restaurant or to visit with friends, I could not help but notice the doors we passed. New, old, some in need of repair and others beyond repair, their gradations of difference is striking. Some are of great size, antiquity and beauty. For others, their birthdates duly engraved into the stone above the entry, the gravitas of their years could not but emote wonder in me. Here in this old place was something that has stood before I was alive, even before my grandparents parents were alive. It is hard to fathom all the subsequent events of consequence and insignificance, which have unfolded before them in the meantime. Some entrances are welcoming. Others are informative, as in the case of the love note from some lovelorn admirer scrawled on the wall beside one particular doorway (see photo album). Another may brandish a necklace of pepperacini peppers drying in the sunshine, a door knocker or some icon symbolizing what went on inside. Over the centuries, others relay a spiritual message.

You will be hard pressed to find doors like these of the ‘borgo storico’ in the art cities of Rome or Florence. This is especially true of those primitive types, which might for example grant entry to an abandoned grotto or chapel, their stone thresholds worn concave from the foot-traffic of centuries.

Much like Robert Frost described how stonewalls make for good neighbors, so to doors serve a similar purpose. A doorway, as a dividing line, is both entry and departure point, shield and point of passage. They divide and separate people and worlds. They can even create different worlds. Doors open to the world, and equally well, can close behind us to shield and sometimes seal us from that same world. Enter solitude or just as easily escape from it - it’s your choice. Pass through one to meet the people outside or pass in the opposite direction and enjoy their hospitality. At times, looking at an old door can even give us insight into what lies just beyond as a sort of glimpse into its hidden mysterious world. A motioning arm in invitation or a ‘permesso’ is the password to gain entry. Doors to me are therefore gateways of passage from one domain into the realm of another.

I can’t help but also feel that the people who inhabit the spaces behind these portals are but temporary ornaments. Much like flowers, we bloom and then gradually fade, yet the doors remain in testiment. Their sides buttressed by stone and cement, worn and weather-beaten, they betray their age not to all passersby but to those who idle long enough to inspect their detail and search for their story.

Enjoy the accompanying photos of the Doorways of Calitri, which I captured this week. Try to ignite your imagination and envision the vibrant stories these portals in time tell us, the current caretakers of this place.

Divertiti, Paolo & Rony

P.S. This just in on the TV here … it is reported that 50% of Italians are unfaithful. (apparently even doors can’t stop love). So I guess that means that if you aren’t the one being untrue, it must be your spouse!!

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled "Calitri Doorways".

Monday, August 24, 2009

Castrum Calitri

In the imaginings of my mind, I could picture a day that had once dawned clear over Calitri. A cool breeze cascaded over the houses that crowded the mountainside helping to cool ‘L.S.’ and a few of his brawny friends as together they strained to muscle a hewed stone block into place across a doorway in Vico Ruggiero. The year was 1875 and I doubt whether ‘L.S.’ or any of his friends knew or cared that Alexander Graham Bell had just made his first voice transmission, that Japan and Russia had ratified the Treaty of Saint Petersburg ending their border dispute, or on a less significant note, that the worlds first roller skating rink had just opened in London.

While these ancillary events are well documented in history, who exactly ‘L.S.’ may have been is veiled in timeless ambiguity. L.S.? L.S.? I often wonder what those initials stood for, if they were initials at all. Could he have been a Lorenzo, a Leonardo or possibly a Luciano? As for a last name, I haven’t a clue. Yet each time we enter our little Italian get-away, we pass beneath these inscribed letters and the date with the only certainty being that long, long ago L.S. wanted to be remembered. Whoever he was, his initials along with the year 1875 are today as distinct as the day they were painstakingly chiseled into the block. But while I am uncertain who “L.S.” may have been, I’m sure his was but a replacement for an earlier entranceway predating 1875 for this place is medieval (even predating medieval). Well before L.S., serfs, tied to a lord in their feudal relationship, roamed these very same narrow streets and alleyways.

Not many streets and interconnecting stairways above ‘Casa della Ferritoia’, which is what we have come to know L.S.’ former residence as, the lord overseer of the region surveyed the feud of Calitri from his Castle situated there on the brow of the mountain.

It seems that many of the places in the medieval Calitri borgo have catchy names, which I want to believe, have some relationship to an earlier use or feature and convey as much by their names.

Examples include:

House of the Bread Maker, House of Heaven, House of the Cypress

The name of our home, which translates to ‘House of the Arrow Slit’, seems to have reverence positioned as it is so close to the Castle. Could it at one time have been part of the outer defenses of the Castle? I’d like to think so. Could there once have been narrow, though tall, openings in the walls facing down the mountainside from which an archer could sight an approaching foe? Though I have looked, no evidence today remains of “arrow slits”, yet I want to believe they were once there. What does remain in evidence, however, is the Castle, which by its very name bristles with arrows in my mind and which is mentioned positioned there atop Calitri mount as far back as the 13th Century. We know it today as the ancestral home of the Gesualdo and later of the Mirelli families but in this earlier time the fortress belonged to the Holy Roman Emperor as part of the defensive line of Southern Italy.

There is no mention of the "Castrum Calitri" in the early Middle Ages (VI-XI centuries), when the city of Conza, to which it belonged, became the capital of the vast Gastaldo Longobardo located on the southeast fringes of the Duchy of Benevento.

Beginning around 1266, the French Angevin dynasty, with the help of the Pope, replaced its German predecessor and spread eastward from Naples to the Ofanto valley and 'Castrum Calitri' became one of forty castles in what was then called the subdivision or province of Benevento.

If the Castle could remember, it would recall that in 1276, King Charles of Anjou granted the Castle to the French Baron of Fleury as his feudal home. The property and its holdings then went to Raymond of Baux and, in 1304, it was sold to Matthia Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, who held it until approximately 1636 with the death of the last heir. Italy at the time was a patchwork of independent towns and small principalities whose borders were drawn and redrawn by battles, diplomatic negotiations and marriage alliances.

In 1636, the castle was purchased by Nicholas Ludovise who for financial reasons later sold it to new landowners, the Mirelli family. Sometime before the end of the eighteenth century, the feudal Mirelli had a survey conducted to evaluate the damage to the Castle following the earthquakes of 1688 and 1692. Historian, one Castellano, who visited the Castle in 1691, exalted on the beauty of the buttressed structure, surrounded by four large corner towers, turrets and other fortifications including arrow slits, four gates, two drawbridges and over 300 hundred rooms. For the record, at least then, "arrow slits" were in evidence!

However, the tragic earthquake of 8 September 1694, almost completely razed the Castle, as well as causing widespread damage in the surrounding countryside - the dead numbered about 300 with thousands more injured. The dead included most of the Mirelli family, guests at the time visiting the Castle and the entire servant staff. As a result, the Mirelli family abandoned the ruins for a baronial mansion lower on the mountain close to the former Convent of the Benedictine Sisters, today the home of the town hall.

Terremoto (earthquake), ever the persistent nemesis of the Italian peninsula and its ensuing destructive aftermath, had become the bane of the Castle. The most recent earthquake occurred on the morning of 23 November 1980. Evidence of this catastrophe is still vividly apparent on the face of the clock just outside our windows where its needled hands were paralyzed that day at exactly 7:37 pm. In the opposite direction, just beyond our “L.S.” inscribed doorway across a small and still unshared courtyard, a metal mesh screen bars all from climbing the stairs to the ‘morta’ zone, still there, above us on the mountain.

This zone is yet another place where time stands still. It is a place still claimed by the recurring terremoto , which over the centuries like a sea monster, every so often surfaces and reeks havoc on man. For the time being, man has given up on this place for this is where the intense destructiveness of the monster, try as it does to erase the creations of man, is still visible.

No barrier like a moat exists. Instead, metal fences with appropriate warnings attempt to keep the curious away. Collapsed roofs and shattered terra cotta tiles blend, as never intended, with colorful floor tiles in an upside-down world of forfeit and compromised integrity. No longer civilized, this barbarian landscape of unrelenting natural devastation is the haunt of feral cats and feral teens, neither of which pay attention to the warnings.

It is a gray lifeless area void of man although evidence of man is everywhere. There is beauty to it yet, where the footprint of man and the fractal creep of nature intermingle. Here unkempt arbors each year dangle their grapes in a tempting harvest which no one picks and where broken abandoned homes, mysterious in their decay, stand as sentries below the abandoned castle walls whose most constant visitor is the wind.

Centuries of recurring terremoto have essentially changed the silhouette of the Castle. In the many repeated efforts to repair the damage following each subsequent earthquake, details have been lost to the extent that today there are no drawbridges and nothing approaching 300 hundred rooms. In fact, some structural details were recently revealed when, with the removal of debris from collapsed homes along Corso Matteotti, an original rounded wall of the Castle was unearthed.

For some years now, funding from the European Union has been dedicated toward the repair of the Castle. Like ants busy about their sandy cone dwellings, oblivious to the forces about them, so men today busy themselves with the monumental task of repairing this historic landmark. The superb craftsmanship of a handful of stone masons is evident especially along Corso Matteotti, running as it does along the base of the Castle.

Occasionally, you can visit the Castle and glimpse the progress being made along with the remaining work ahead. We were fortunate to be in Calitri on just such an occasion and on a blistering hot, brilliant afternoon eagerly queued-up with some curious fellow visitors for a tour.

Unfortunately, we missed much of the information because this was an all-Italian tour with our guide speaking only in Italian. Even with the language barrier, we could piece many of the points being made and the feature being described.

From its description, the Calitri Castle was once of a classic design with fortified battlements and not one but two drawbridges. Much of this has been lost to us, just as the supposed “arrow slits” in our home, due no doubt to the ravages of time and to the continued rebuilding following earthquakes. The grandeur of its once 300 rooms had diminished. In fact, there were nowhere near 300 rooms any longer.

We moved through a complex of unfurnished rooms, beginning with a basement area of caverns burrowed into an earthy material of lightly cemented yellowish sand, that featured olive and wine presses. In an outside open area beside a domed cistern used to collect water it was impressive to see how a horizontal tie-rod had been artistically adopted. The reinforcement rod, which spanned an open space between adjacent walls, had opposing life-size figures of men partially imbedded in the wall, each grasping his respective end of the rod. The figures faced-off against each other in classic tug-of-war fashion, each antagonist apparently straining to pull his opponent to his side. Windswept tattered scarves that completely covered their heads masked their faces (see photo album). I wondered if these functional artforms, motionless in static standoff, might represent the struggle between man and nature or more appropriately here, man and the terremoto monster?

Close by, from the battlements, the view from this height of Calitri proper and the surrounding countryside spread out far below was breathtaking and like none other. It must have been a grand vista indeed for the lords and ladies to take in and realize that everything in view, even beyond, was theirs to control and dominate.

Back inside, we hesitated to look up at hundreds of small hollow terracotta cylinders, capped on either end. About the size of a Coke can, they joined together side by side in a mortar paste to form the vaulted ceilings. This ancient engineering technique provided lightweight strength to the domed ceilings visible in many of the rooms we visited.

The return on the investment from the repeated clanks of the mason’s chisels was evidence everywhere in the wonderful stonework throughout the castle compound. An apparent solitude of extremes existed between what had been repaired and the yet untouched areas, conspicuously cordoned off.

In this surrealistic no-where place of today, high atop of our mountain, it is hard to believe it was once the vibrant taproot where Calitri originated - where once a fortified stronghold on an austere windswept plateau became a keep and then a full-fledged Castle. From it gradually spread a feudal infrastructure of simple homes and hillside grottos, which cascaded down the mountainside along hallway-like streets like a lush vine to eventually become Calitri and home to L.S. and today of Paolo and Maria Elena. I prefer to remember it not like it is but like it once was and especially on that day of lost distinction when red rough hands stolen from some field helped L.S. hoist his lasting pendent not above castle walls but above a doorway, undoubtedly his castle.

Take what the gods bestow and be thankful, for life is good.

Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled "Calitri Castle".

Friday, July 24, 2009

Pensionamento (Retirement)

An omen is a phenomenon that is believed to foretell the future and often signifies the advent of change. Omens may be considered “good” or “bad” but the term is more often used in a foreboding sense, as with the word “ominous”.

There was, for instance, a time when while I was sitting by the steps of the Tuscan cathedral in San Gimignano, a pigeon deposited something reminiscent of 'white out' correction fluid on my head! Some might interpret this event as an omen foretelling good fortune, as indeed I was told it meant. In fact, I recall this as the interpretation given in the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” when the Contessa, wishing to sell ‘Bramasole’ but in need of a sign from God, saw this exact same occurrence as just that - a sign from God that here was the anointed purchaser. Anointed indeed! Well, in my case, I saw it as simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Do-do is simply do-do no matter what the source, circumstance or interpretation. Yet now that I think back on it, we now own a small place of our own in Italy purchased from a Baroness (vs Contessa), so is there something to all this after all? Could this pigeon spiritualism really be an omen foretelling a future real estate purchase?

The Romans, with their pantheon of gods and penchant for superstition, believed that the gods manipulated their lives and controlled everyday events. This was evident in the credence they afforded the meaning drawn from the natural occurrences about them. The interpretation of events, from signs in the sky to the arrangement of animal entrails, dominated their society. Omens became serious business and indeed did control personal behavior and even the actions of government. My grandmother actually believed that snakes materialized from rain-barrels after a storm. If only things were so simple today but then animal rights advocates would be outraged.

It was seen as an omen of disaster to have a black cat enter a house or have a snake fall from the roof into the yard. No black cat for us and it wasn’t a snake falling from our roof that got me thinking about omens in the first place and their portent for the future.

Go ahead, you play the augur with this one …. Marie Elena had been cleaning around the lakehouse in preparation for our full-time permanent arrival and the official beginning of our retirement. Basically, we will be living in a forest with a quarter mile gravel driveway there among the wild things. She’d washed the floor and was now standing on a chair organizing and dusting a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. She'd started at the top and was working her way down a shelf at the time when she noticed what she thought was a coiled flat snakeskin, which she went ahead and picked up to dust underneath. She hadn't seen it before and thought that I or one of the grandchildren had put it there without mentioning it to her. If it had been me, I'd have dusted right around it but then again I don't dust. No problem until the thing started to move in her hand and in an instant she realized this was the real McCoy, not just a misplaced snakeskin. She screamed and let the thing fly and, as she ran out of the house, caught a glimpse of it slithering across the floor going who knows where but in the opposite direction at least. No simple and passive comet or star in the East for us. Oh no, we had to have something special …… a snake in the house! Auspicious, inauspicious? Go figure. Were the gods trying to tell us something about our upcoming retirement or were they just toying with us?

In general, snakes have a bad image derived from centuries of bad press. This most likely evolved over time beginning with the Garden of Eden snake imagery, on through St Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes and continuing today with more recent Disney caricatures.

For the Greeks, a snake on Anchises' grave was a pleasant omen of fertility or of an erotic connotation. Given our snake visit and then add to it the fact that we are currently adding a new master bedroom to our home, well, ut-oh, ominous indeed - watch out …. ‘Danger Will Robinson’! It’s all in the tealeaves and the interpretation then, so I guess an omen can cut both ways. Without question, we have good and bad times ahead. Who ever said life was fair? Then again, it has always been this way ... stuff happens! Yet, with enough flips of a coin, it should approach a 50-50 proposition with the good and the bad of it coming out just about even.

On 1 July, I joined my wife in retirement and so far we have survived for three whole weeks! It's not that I fear some sort of mid-life incompatibility because together is all we have. There no doubt will be some need for adjustment because now I'm always around whereas before I wasn't. I wonder who will need the most adjustment, outright sanctioning, or worse, a restraining order? Gradually, but I sense it, I'm already being banished from the kitchen!

I’m not sure about retired Italians but now as one who has paid his dues and joined this select club I can assure you it isn’t for sissies. So far it has been a lot of work for someone over 60, as I am. I’ve been cutting trees and clearing brush. I’ve painted a deck, spread mulch all about the yard between honey-do requests and have been supervising construction of the addition. While I am luckily still without a sling or cast, I have in a matter of a few weeks accumulated enough cuts, scrapes and slivers to empty a box of bandages and a tube of antiseptic. Ah, the bliss of retirement.

I find myself now working harder than ever, though I grant you it is more of a physical nature with lots of moving around verses sitting behind a desk. My body is in some form of culture shock. It demands to be heard and wants a Freedom of Information Request answered to explain what has happened and how long this will go on!

Being in this new, self-imposed predicament, I began to wonder what other retirees thought about retirement and how they coped with the changes. I recalled all the retired gentlemen on the streets of Calitri day after day. I’d see them everywhere pocketed together in groups, large and small. Wherever there are benches or main intersections you would find two or three gathered, chatting and monitoring events. Some groups are like a tight rugby huddle with only their heads swiveling above the pack to keep abreast of who might be in that passing car or who is walking by on the opposite side of the street. In their beloved routine, they miss little. They move with the summer shade, undoubtedly along pre-choreographed paths to avoid the heat. Routine seems to now dominate their lives. Undoubtedly for most, they can only look forward to a tomorrow being just about exactly like today. Yet, while the days and time can blur, they have each other.

I was curious about these Italian pensionati (retirees) so I searched for some information and was surprised with what I found. A recent survey* of my Italian retired counterparts revealed some startling statistics. It depicted many as poor, depressed and isolated. For 50% of them, retirement is a sad time engendering a negative image of this stage of their lives. For a third, the word “retirement” means death, old age and illness. For 11%, “retirement” recalls poverty and financial difficulties, for 6% loneliness and for 2% uselessness. WOW! What have I gotten into! Was this what that snake was trying to tell us?

In fact, Italian pensioners have a more negative image of retirement than any other nation. Their 49% unfavorable rating is much higher than the 28% world average and that of Western Europe with an overall unfavorablity rating of only 32%. The most satisfied pensioners are the French, where 81% are favorable on retirement. Couldn't you have guessed that?

On a more optimistic note, 10% of Italian pensioners consider the word “retirement” to mean rest and peace, 7% consider it means enjoying life, 10% equate it to freedom and having time for themselves and 6% with not doing anything. Although on the positive side of the ledger, these numbers are terribly low and when contrasted with broader worldwide attitudes, their 39% positive association is dwarfed by the 65% world average.

The survey found, for the most part, Italian retirement is a time of emptiness. The numbers show only 8% of Italian pensioners travel, 9% dedicate time to voluntary activities and only 4% engage in sports. For the rest, retirement equates to a private life of activities mostly performed inside the home. For those who remain at home, it is because their lifestyles had declined with retirement. 37% of pensioners experienced deterioration. Above all, only 41% of pensioners consider their retirement income sufficient. For 35% of pensioners this prompts the bitter observation that the quality of their lives has deteriorated with retirement. This bitterness is shared by 30% of pensioners worldwide, but by only 26% of pensioners living in Western Europe. What is it with these Italians and their contrarian outlook on retirement?

Here is an outside the box news article symptomatic of the plight of many Italian retirees today – it might shed some anecdotal evidence on what is going on there:

A widowed 80-year-old teacher in Italy has taken a novel step to stop being lonely - advertising for a family willing to adopt him as a grandfather. Giorgio Angelozzi, whose wife died 14 years ago, placed his appeal in an Italian newspaper over the weekend and has been inundated with replies. "Families have called me from all over Italy," said Mr Angelozzi, who offered to pay 500 euros a month. Italy has seen an increase in older people living alone in recent years. "Elderly retired school teacher seeks family willing to adopt grandfather. Will pay," read Mr Angelozzi's advertisement in the Corriere della Sera newspaper. The classics teacher, who has lived near Rome with seven cats for company since his wife died in 1992, said he was lonely after spending his life teaching Latin and Greek to young people. The advertisement obviously struck a chord with dozens of families. "So many families answered my appeal and want me to teach their children and grandchildren Horace and Catullus," said Mr Angelozzi. He was not expecting so much warmth and interest in his story, Mr Angelozzi said. "But remember that my problem is one that affects so many elderly people in Italy." Despite the traditional importance of the family in Italy, changing family structures mean more elderly relatives are left on their own.

Was it Giorgio’s offer to contribute monthly, the vision of a built-in babysitter, interest in the classic languages or some underlying philanthropic phenomenon at play, which explains the public’s newfound interest in him? Surely, it’s a combination of these and other factors in the stew of this Italian-ness.

There is no lack of enthusiasm about one fact - Italian pensioners are firmly convinced they are still young, even though retired and possibly lonely. Don’t we all! And young they are since Italian pensioners stop working at an average age of 57, while believing that old age begins at 75 and that, in any case, they are still fit and able to work up to the age of 68. This is significant.

Italy is a place where things are always about to happen. Take that bridge from Sicily to the mainland, that new but never finished highway into our town of Calitri or that electrician who promised he’d be there yesterday. In 1994 for instance, the first Berlusconi government hit a wall when it tried to reform the Italian pension system. That experience, however, hasn’t stopped Silvio, who undaunted as with his experiences with marriage, is having another go at pension reform, as watered down as it may turn out to be. Truth be told, Italy, along with the rest of Europe, faces a mountain of future pension debt it must climb or somehow skirt since there are far fewer contributors and too many takers in the present system. At least in this regard, Europe is united and has something in common.

Tough decisions definitely lie ahead and it is doubtful that any timely increase in birthrate will occur to allow Italy to sustain its present pension system, no matter how many snakes might cross Anchises' grave denoting the pleasant omen of fertility! Unfortunately, state pension promises soon become entitlements with little chance thereafter of successfully taking them away, as the Berlusconi government can surely attest to. If I were to dabble at augury here, I would foretell that Italians will soon be required to work beyond their current entitlement age to claim a full state pension. Here in the States that age is around 66 for most of us. Retire earlier than that and you'll get a reduced pension. It's one way for government to get the numbers to add up.

Yikes, what was that? Something just slithered across my feet as I type this! For better or worse that persistent omen is back! So here we are - Maria Elena, myself and the snake of foreboding or erotic bliss. You can probably guess my druthers on that one, the gods willing.

Paolo

* Portrait of Italian Pensioners, Results of the 4th AXA Retirement Scope “New Dynamics” Survey, 8 Apr ‘08

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rogue Tourist

Area of Saint Mark’s Square with the Doge Palace to Right

Published: 18 June 2009

We’d been traipsing around Venice for a few days. It being our second visit to the floating city, this stopover gave us enough time to become intimate with its magic. From your first view of the Grand Canal, you quickly realize that this place can seduce you in an instant. In evidence, I recall Maria Elena crying when she stepped from the Santa Lucia rail station and for the first time took in the panorama before her – the greened patina dome of San Simeone Piccolo, the Ponte degli Scalzi (Bridge of the Barefoot) off to the left, and of course, the Grand Canal itself laid out before her. This magic is especially true at night along any of Venice’s many quiet deserted calle, shadowy street cafés and throughout its labyrinth of tangled streets. Masked illusion? Somewhat, but play blind-man’s-bluff in this town and you could end up in the drink in no time!

Thus far into our visit we had been busy ... ~ In Saint Mark’s Square one late night, we had experienced what I might best describe as the dueling orchestras from the Cafes Florian, Lavena and Quadri. Each competed for our attention, one taking turn following the other, as we shifted with the bystanders from one to the next and then returned once again for another round. With Wagner and the like, this was magical old-world at its best.

~ High atop the nearby Campanile di San Marco (bell tower), we’d witnessed the expanse of the aqua-city from St Mark’s Basilica all the way round to the Doge Palace and in the process were deafened by the bone jarring clang of its bells, just feet above our heads, as they struck the hour. Ever turn on your surround sound system and jump in reaction to an excessive volume setting? Not even a close second. At over 100 decibels, this cacophony could loosen your fillings!

~ On Murano, the glass blowing studio we visited hadn’t cooperated at all. They had literally refused to demonstrate their techniques, since as was explained to us, the Chinese were especially notorious in their industrial espionage of late – did we look Chinese?

~ In an hour just before dusk, we had managed to even fit in a gondola ride, complete with velvet pillows, song and blanket. We’d missed doing this on our earlier visit.

~ On Isola di San Michele, we stood un-noticed and watched quietly as an elderly patron entered the tiniest of buildings and made her payment for ‘perpetual’ electrical lighting of a loved ones grave, marveled at the ceramic picture plates on the tombs of the interned, watched again from a distance as the bones of some long departed Venetian were removed to make room for a new inhabitant and gave up our own space to make way for the well dressed crowds continually arriving for the next funeral ceremony. It was clear that here the dead were never alone.

~ We had sampled the fare. The tiramisu, this city’s dessert of record, was fabulous. The sepia pasta, however, a favorite recommended by our gondolier in fact, dowsed as it was with black as coal cuttlefish ink, blackening both our mouths and table napkins. This delicacy would take much getting used too and require far more time than we had. We decided to try it again in our next lives!

We had seen and experienced much thus far but there was more ahead, especially the much anticipated “Doge Palace Secret Itineraries Tour”, unknowingly to us at the time, destined to be by far the most memorable and talked about moment of our trip.

All this time, we were staying on Venice’s southern flank in the Dorsoduro district at the Palazzo Guardi on Calle del Pistor, a few boat lengths down this narrow canal from Squero de San Trovaso, where they still make and repair gondolas. After the Murano experience, I wondered whether most of the new ones, nowadays, came from China! The Guardi was also just a short walk and a few turns from the Galleria dell'Accademia and that most temporary of all bridges, Ponte dell'Accademia, the Academia Bridge. You may have developed a feel for the word ‘temporary’, but I doubt that it comes close to its Italian version. It seems that this bridge was to serve only as an interim foot bridge across the Grand Canal, with a more permanent structure to follow. I learned it was constructed in 1932 and is the youngest of the four main city bridges. Indeed, the intention of short-term use is evident from its plain wooden construction and is a far cry from the imposing and permanency of stone, for which Italian architecture and indeed its sibling bridges are known. Yet through all the intervening years, through good and bad times, replacement and repairs, it has stood in re-definement of the word temporary! Situated right where the bridge deposits you on Dorsoduro, the Academia is a treasure showcase of works by all the great Venetian masters. It houses the largest such collection in the world and stands in testament to the glory that was once Venice.

From outside of our door, adjacent to Taverna San Trovaso on the small canal flowing alongside Fondamenta Priuli, we enjoyed early morning walks, just about circling our entire island. We would leisurely make our way along the broad watery flats of Canale della Giudecca to Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute at one end of Dorsoduro and then catch a vaporetto water shuttle back down the Grand Canal to the Academia Bridge, all in time for breakfast.

I especially liked places where you would wait for the vaporetto ferry boats. Inside these bobbing shelters you could sit on the benches and marinate in the atmosphere anytime. Here the character of its people was evident in the spooning young couples nearby or better yet in the octogenarian couple clutching a bouquet of flowers, arms interlaced, undoubtedly on their way to Isola di San Michele (cemetery island). Each couple totally internalized and oblivious to everything including the ferry routes so neatly displayed overhead. Go ahead and malign the Italians all you want, but not their train and ferry systems, that is, when they aren’t on strike!

And then the day arrived for the Doge Palace tour (Itinerari Segreti del Palazzo Ducale). It was here that the Venetian government’s seat of power had resided for 700 years and this tour intended to highlight the history and inner workings of the Venetian republic by leading us through multiple rooms and council chambers, otherwise off limits but for this tour.

We saw the offices of the Grand Council and the prison cells, some below water line, called the “wells, which was not good if you were a prisoner during flood season. The most moving moment though, was passing over the Bridge of Sighs and imagining being led to a cell. A torture room, known as the “Chamber of Torment” with balcony viewing areas was another highlight along with a hallway where incriminating notes, surreptitiously dropped through a stone faced mouth opening in the wall, where read by three judges (two being insufficient because of the possibility of bribes, but to be able to bribe three ...). This must have been where the “drop-a-dime” on your buddy had originated, yet unlike our system, here there was sever punishment for a frivolous change.

The most interesting part of the tour by far was the almost tabloid storyline related to the palaces most renowned inmate, Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798). Casanova, a most colorful historical character, endured careers as a lawyer, military officer, and violinists all the while refining the skills needed for his most noteworthy avocation as gambler and renowned womanizer. These later lifelong pursuits got the attention of the Venetian inquisitors, and without a trial, into the Doge prisons primarily in “public outrage against the most holy religion”. We got to enter the cell where Casanova was incarcerated and walked his supposed escape route through the lead roofed attic just off the armory. It was only later that I learned that his cell was a reproduction.

The tour itself was just fine. It was our guide which made it sooooo memorable and not in a positive sense. We still laugh about it because if ever there was a contest, she’d walk away, hands down, with the crown for nastiest tour guide of all times. Surprisingly, we never got her name and we haven’t a picture of her either. She must have given us her name but none of us can recall it now. We will, however, never forget her in our memory’s eye for she was a real piece of work.

That day she wore a sweat shirt which read, “I Love NY”. When asked how she liked her visit to New York – she replied, “not at all”. She preferred France she said and this at a time when the US was boycotting french fries! This immediately put us off on the wrong foot! The tour was yet young, had we been prematurely judgmental? We soon learned, not at all – clearly there must be some truth to the accuracy of a first impression.

Her countenance was somewhere between that of an Ava Braun character and a Brunhilda, of the stereotypical prison guard type persona. Her authoritarian voice was a combination of TV’s prison camp commandant, Colonel Klink, and that woman on the bicycle in the Wizard of Oz! A regular Nazi control freak if ever there was one! In fact, she may have been related to the “Soup Nazi” from Seinfeld but there I go with TV analogies again.

At the top of some palatial staircase, she declared that no more photos were allowed from here on, but then, if someone didn’t take one. “I said no more photos!” We should have known right then what lay ahead for us. I was surprised she didn’t demand the film right then and there or for the digital brand of malefactor, that as a minimum, it be erased while she watched! And to think, the tour was still young!

“Don’t touch” she’d bellow with a klaxon-like shrillness and certainly don’t even think about ever leaning on the walls! I’m surprised we were permitted to breathe. Maybe she hadn’t yet thought of demanding shallower breaths!

As a form of subliminal torture, seeing you are on your feet for a few hours, was the total denial of any rest or even someplace to sit down. Everything was roped off. “Keep moving, keep moving ...” commanded the commandant. Forget about water-boarding, I was willing to confess to just about anything right then!

God forbid if you touched something and she saw you. This did happen. There was a child in the group who was monitored and corrected constantly. We soon discovered that she had three eyes, two on the adults and one on the child! I remember one poor fellow, an Indian or Pakistani I think, who did touch the walls at the top of the stairs. It was at this point that the official tour began and where her latest attempt to control us ... “No photographs beyond this point” was issued. He may have been having a difficult time absorbing and categorizing all the restrictions and ‘non farlo’ at that moment and forgot her very first imperative, “don’t touch the valls”! After a while, I mused that she may have been one of Casanova’s guards and was still smarting because he’d escaped and marred some surfaces along his escape route.

Maria Elena has for years accused me of not obeying rules and can’t imagine how I could have served in the military which is a hierarchy of rules and rulers. It would take a lot of couch sessions to accurately ID the problem. I sometimes wonder myself but at least in the military they let you occasionally bomb something! It must have something to do with being so constrained throughout my career that every so often, I rebel in mutiny of the repression. This was indeed one of those occasions. Some people have post traumatic stress syndrome and me, well I have an incurable case of authority disorder of the “I can’t take it any more” variety.

So it came to pass that toward the end of the tour as the correction and haranguing began to take its toll, I would protest as a sort of civil disobedience whenever I had the chance. Rebellion is my only therapy. With all the smoke-and-mirror deception and masked illusion this great floating city is known for and where subterfuge and disguised revelers were always an essential element of its life, how could I resist? I’d just about caress the woodwork, walls or whatever as we obediently followed our Fuhrer from palace room to room, encouraged by the supportive smiles of my fellow tour-mates, who apparently, in solidarity, must have felt my actions were a form of a class action protest on their behalf as well. I surly thought it was.

So if you ever embark on the “Mysteries of the Doge Palace Tour” be sure to ask for the nastiest guide of them all (they’ll most likely know who you mean) and enjoy the constant scolding, but uppermost of all, don’t touch the valls!

Thanks for reading,
The Rogue Tourist

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Doge Venice”.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Festival of the Madonna

First Published: 19 May 2009

Sunshine illuminated the piazza as I emerged from the borgo. The Italian and Europa flags were still wrapped around their masts above the town hall door, while under nearby trees, our Opal remained parked next to the constable’s car where I’d left it. Not much had changed. On one of the park-like benches, Tony, with his familiar blue jacket accented in red, was holding session with a few of his cronies, including a thin gentleman with a belt drawn much too tightly at his waist. Most likely their discussions were of sports and politics, the same worldwide mantra, only here with different accents. In the valley below, white smoke billowed from the terra cotta tile factory. Everything looked in order right down to the phalanx of recycling containers, which I dutifully fed their requisite diets of glass, plastic, cardboard and trash before continuing down Corso Matteotti.

I wondered if my very presence affected what I was seeing, putting things off from their norm, much like the affect an electron microscope has on its subjects, whose very use, with its streaming electrons, affects the movement of the atoms it attempts to observe. For a moment I wondered what I might be radiating.

I was witnessing the early hour pageantry of the town unfold as I basically hung out that morning. Mario’s Café was closed. He was on vacation up north somewhere visiting relatives, with maybe a stop by the sea. In his absence, I’d opted for another café. So there I was a few minutes later sitting on my own bench, holding council only with myself, sipping my mandatory morning cappuccino outside of Biscotteria I Nobili, just across the street from Café del Corso, on Corso Matteotti in the heart of Calitri.

Let me share the scene. The street lamps had dimmed and eventually shut off. A Moroccan woman in a yellow jilaabah pushed a stroller past me on some early morning quest. Like myself, here was something different from the uniform consistency of the town’s citizenry. In cadence with her, by her side, her young daughter fought to keep up while struggling to carry her mother’s big carry-all purse. It nearly dragged across the pavement. Nearby, a commune workman was already out sweeping the street equipped with a primitive looking, though effective, broom. No motorized street sweepers here! Telltale and in conformity undoubtedly with old ways, he used a bundle of long, withy, disjointed sticks bound to a lengthy bamboo handle. He appeared to be a talented fellow with a serious brow of intent lining his forehead. His skilled hands did a masterful job with thrusts and twists here and there as though he were a hockey forward intent on checking every errant piece of debris against the curb.

It was festival season. Wooden street decorations of ornate filigree and white lights, reminiscent of Christmas ornaments, bridged the main thoroughfares. Signs of activity were everywhere as preparations for the series of religious processions and accompanying festive celebrations proceeded. The word on the street, according to posters scattered about town, was that an up and coming rocker would perform one evening. The following night, we could look forward to an energetic troop of female entertainers, regaled in short glittery costumes, Vegas-like make-up and sporting wispy cheek microphones, performing from a stage cloaked in artificial fog. Spettacolo!

This was a much-anticipated annual event and as a result the town was experiencing a temporary surge in population. Vender panel trucks filled, even overflowed from, any available space. Homes in the borgo were opening up as people returned just for the festivities. Visiting relatives from far and about, like Titi who had arrived from Cinque Terra, were also adding to the new faces during the ritual passeggiata evening walk.

When the day finally arrived, fireworks heralded the commencement of activities. Unfortunately this announcement was early, around 8am in fact. The pyrotechnics were more like mortars for a better daytime effect. With exceedingly more boom than flash, they were guaranteed to get your attention, especially if you had been so complacent as to attempt to sleep in. Talk about shock and awe! If all the preparations for the festival had not already wound you up tight as a mainspring, you definitely were after this not so subtle festa bombardment.

In large part, the festival centers around a series of processions, one of which is the procession of the statue of the Madonna, circa 1730. The procession began at the Church of the Immaculate Conception located on the edge of the borgo and preceded through the tight maze of streets; some so narrow you could almost touch either wall. Parallel files of male processioners, each with light blue capes trimmed in golden fringe and featuring a saucer sized silvery medallion of the Madonna in relief, led the way. Accompanying them, on either side of the Madonna, was a pair of perpetually serious looking carabinieri. Each had a red stripe down his pant leg as wide as a ribbon. A blue plume topped in red rose from matador-style hats strapped tightly under their chins. Beginning at a ceremonial shoulder epaulet edged in tassels, a white sash passed across their chests to support a silver scabbard at their waists. This only added to their look of officialdom. The saber itself, positioned in a gloved hand, was at attention vertically in the crook of their shoulders.

As they moved along, the faithful responded to the invocations of the town’s only priest, Father Maurizio, himself swathed in a red sash over a white robe. In his hand was the modern accouterment of a wireless microphone. Farther back in the crowd, an altar boy holding wireless speakers aloft on a staff relayed the prayers from the priest’s microphone to the faithful. Nearby the women’s rosary society, dressed in mournful black, solemnly responded.

The life-size statue itself, circa 1730, was resplendent as it rose from a golden base where the heads of cherubs were just visible through an arrangement of fresh pink hydrangeas. Frozen in time, she wore a pale green dress decorated with small red roses and trimmed in gold. A blue shawl adorned with gold stars encircled her waist, billowing lifelike from her in places. She posed with her hands clenched at her chest as though expressing to us “it’s me, really me, your mother”. A halo of stars, proclaiming her divinity, orbited her head. Fair facial features expressed the deceptive imagery European artists employed throughout history in failing to portray middle-easterners as they most likely appeared. Her rosy cheeks contrasted with her light, almost pale, skin. A straight nose and smallish mouth completed the humble expression on her westernized face.

For a brief moment I wondered if many of those present realized that the Madonna was only indirectly associated, as sole beneficiary in fact, with the actual Immaculate Conception. In truth, it was her mother, Ann, who experienced this miraculous event, not Mary. The immaculate, though indeed sexual, conception of the Virgin Mary in Ann’s womb is often confused with the later non-sexual conception of the virgin mother’s own son, Jesus.

Unlike other processions, in other places, here there was no tacky tradition of taping currency to her frame. After all, when you think about it, the Madonna was most likely, following the visit of the Wise Men, a wealthy woman in her day. I’ve always wondered what the Madonna eventually did with the gold, frankincense and myrrh presented to her son, but then again, it is equally mind boggling to entertain the notion of ‘wise men’ nowadays, let alone fiscally responsibly ones, let alone any who would prostrate themselves!

All seeing and everywhere, the spirit represented by the statue has no need to be removed from its pedestal of honor in the church, but yet, each September it is removed and carried aloft on the strong shoulders of the portetori, the men selected just for this purpose. It almost appears as though the people must see the Madonna among them, seemingly instilled with human needs for sunshine, companionship, even an occasional fresh air walk with them through their streets in holy passeggiata. No doubt there is also the need to be seen with the Madonna as a devout humble participant in this event. This visual display of religiosity is for the people, not the Madonna. The Madonna, here as all across Italy, possessed her own unique appealing imagery.

The Madonna, the mother, represents comfort from that initial swaddling to a lifetime of coddling, especially if you are an Italian male. She is inseparable in the psyche from the nurturing, protection, and love given them by their own mothers, their personal Madonna’s. For each of the participants in the procession, to varying degrees, she is also revered for her continuous presence. Deep inside they know she is always there, will always be there. Hers is a reliable presence just as their mother always was for them in contrast to the seemingly continual absence of their working father. While Madonna and child are everywhere, rare is the depiction of father and child. The word father doesn’t even rate capitalization as ‘Madonna’ does! After all, while she gave of her body and risked life itself, father in comparison was but a contributor. There is no comparison! Moreover, she represents protection and comfort from danger and injury. Think back, didn’t we all run to momma with our childhood tears, not papa, even when there was a choice? The Madonna, our mamma, is the consummate caregiver and the hundreds, possibly thousands, of people there that day made manifest this unique mother, ever child, relationship. This fealty to the universal mother is mortar to soul and spirit, binding them in their unified devotion to each other, in common as brothers and sisters, but more so as Calitriani, for this is their heritage and their version of the Madonna found nowhere else.

As the procession flowed through the streets of Calitri, so the lifeblood of the town flowed in renewal of its spirit, and for at least another year, renewed their traditions and strengthened their common beliefs. Just as a house becomes a home through attentive signs of life ... with song, the smell of food, curtains in the windows, voices and laughter escaping from those same windows, even an evening lullaby heard from the street ... so this stream of praying and chanting humanity engenders a monolithic people united in a common faith which gives Calitri, beyond being a cluster of houses, its unique identity. Not surprising, city officials, dignitaries and other luminaries, all in fine regalia, walk solemnly near the Madonna in an apparent display of civic piety, as though seeking some indulgence, possibly inspiration, maybe even some forgiveness. Here as in all of Italy, secular and religious aspects of life are in a blender, set on high, for uniform consistency.

From time to time the precession would stop at makeshift altars to pray, rest, even replace weary portetori. On one of these occasions, Maria Elena for just a moment, felt like her own personal Forest Gump. Here was a character who seemed unreasonably present for many an historic event in modern times. What happened next was in no way historic, yet as Maria Elena stood there against the stone wall right outside Tommaso Piumille’s storefront on Via Concezione, the procession just stopped in front of her, practically pinning her against the wall. She had become part of the event, undoubtedly at that moment on the retina of hundreds of onlookers. A table appeared, covered with a lace altar cloth, and the statue of the Madonna came to rest inches from her. They could have whispered to each other, exchanging girl–to-girl chat, more likely mother-to-mother talk, if only it was possible, something I’m sure not even Gump could have pulled off!

Later, when I had to retreat into a doorway to make room for the sauntering procession, I noticed an ancient Roman Republic icon, called the fasces, on a ceramic number plate to the side of the doorway. In fact, this physical symbol of power and magisterial authority was often carried in ancient Roman processions. The actual fasces consisted of a bundle of white birch rods bound tight with a red leather ribbon to form a cylinder and included a bronze axe with its blade protruding from the bundle. Here was a rare leftover from the Mussolini era. Apparently, porcelain was too valuable a commodity to capriciously discard, especially on the chance that the symbol might come back into vogue someday! But then it already had – my pocket contained the very symbol on some of my American coins. Give unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s … but here in Calitri, this day, it would be to God and to the Madonna in particular.

Afterward as dusk fell, when the Madonna had completed her stroll with the people and had been returned to her niche atop the altar, it was just outside in the square that folkloric dancers performed before a crowd of hundreds. The men boasted red neckties, red waist sashes and matching ties on their trouser cuffs. White socks and shirts with black vests completed their ensembles. Their partners sported embroidered scarves on the backs of their heads and wore matching white blouses. Long skirts, this time with embroidery along their hems, whirled just above the brick pavement. Together the troop performed complex dances around a maypole. With long colored ribbons extending from the pole to each dancer, they first generated and then just as easily undid intricate webs of interlaced design to the accompanying reedy music of an accordion. Fireworks, this time equally as brilliant as deafening, served as a fitting crescendo to this day of ageless imagery and pageantry.

Whether it be a whirl and twist to a throaty accordion, the writhing spectacle of a modern beat on a fogbound stage or the subdued tempo of a religious chant ... whether it be a walk through the maze of cobbled hallway-like streets, the ritual of passeggiata or the simply act of emerging into the dawning life of the town, when the glass runs out of sand for each of us, the Madonna will still be moving through the streets and alleyways of Calitri in her ceremony of renewal and ever-presence. As was undoubtedly the case with long past dwellers of these very streets, let those of us in the present ardently pray it will forever be so and everybody said, ‘Amen’.

Divertiti, la vita è buono!

Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Festival”.

Trulli Magnificent

First Published: 16 Apr 2009

I must have visibly paled as I looked down in disbelief at the circular plastic disk. It hadn’t finished its wobble, wobble, wobble thing there on the pavement before I realized what had happened. It was me. It was my clumsy fault. Moving around in the close confines right there in the Calitri street between my car and gas pump, where I’d been forced to park close because of traffic, I’d managed to do-in the gas cap cover with an unthinking, rotating movement of my hip. Actually snapping it right off! I’d once joked that I’d been too big for a subterranean Parisian bistro, but now what, Italy to? Well, what to do? Fuget-about-it, at least for a while and hit the road to the Adriatic coast anyway!

Along with Geraldine and Antonio, members of our adopted Italian family, we were on our way first across the tomato fields of Basilicata, past Bari with its mammoth stadium named for Santa Claus, and on into the olive orchards of Puglia to our destination, Alberobello. Literally located in the spiked heel of the Italian boot, we were up for a weekend of earthy relaxation and discovery.

Alberobello, whose name originates from a grove of alberi belli (beautiful trees) that once grew in this local, is today a tourist mecca due to another, more enduring, historic presence. For it is here where you will find the Trulli. Trulli are not descendents of some ancient tribe but the name for an angled cone-roofed building made from local limestone. They consist of very thick circular stone walls with a steep dome, also of stone and usually topped with a bowling ball tipped capstone, raised up almost as an offering. These structures were originally all constructed without mortar, with a single door, maybe a window, a packed dirt floor, and astrological symbols painted on the cones to ward off evil. In addition to housing peasant families, they also served well for storage and sheltering livestock. Many may have seen pictures of them and fewer recognize the name, yet here is something ingeniously unique. They come in many varieties, almost like scoops of gelato with one, two, even sometimes grander places with four or more cones connected in imitation of a grand Tuscan villa.

I refer to them as ingenious sorts because of the story surrounding their origination. As it is told, and maybe this is just legend or at most a one-time incident thereby bestowing a smattering of truth to the story, these cone-topped structures were socially engineered long, long ago as a response to taxation! Taxation can make for strange behavior and cause people to take all sorts of unconventional actions. Remember that tea party in Boston? Way back when, as the revenue collector made his village rounds, I can imagine how word of his presence would have outpaced his movements. Lacking cell towers or telefonini, something on the order in its day of a medieval “neighborhood watch” developed! Property tax was related to whether the property was improved or unimproved. Lack of a roof was a telltale sign of abandonment or that the structure was uninhabited. Such places were taxed at a lower rate or not at all. Therein lay the key to fooling the taxman, then as now an Italian national pastime! For as the story goes, the wily villagers, on advanced warning, removed their stone roofs, some going as far as to dismantle the walls entirely leaving but a field of stone, thereby avoiding being taxed! When the revenuer departed, poof, up went the Trulli again! Indeed the structure was there in all its elements but in an invisible form. Liquid, portable, unidentifiable, todays offshore and Swiss bank accounts may be equally invisible to the modern taxman!

For as little as twenty Euros to as much as hundreds of thousands of Euros, you can own one today. The former being one of the miniature souvenir Trulli models, good for dusting, made of the same materials and to the same exacting standards as their big brothers and the kind we opted for!

We were staying in nearby Cisternino in the ‘four-coned’ vacation home of Antonio’s aunt. This is provincial Italy at its purest. You can tell from its name that this is a small community as anything in Italian with a “nino” word ending implies! Indeed, for we were in a rural farming area with field upon field bordered with waist high stone walls, much like an Irish country paddock. But unlike the Emerald Isle, here the walls separated aged olive trees whose girth could take three people holding outstretched arms to reach around and not comfortably. Towering cacti with prickly leafs as big as dinner platters and flower bulbs the size of Idaho potatoes also hinted that you “weren’t in Kansas anymore” either!

Sleeping in one is like stepping into history. Lying there, staring up at the vaulted stone dome one can conjure up romantic visions of humble 14th century peasants doing exactly the same, some sharing their space with their livestock for warmth. Romantic today, yes, but it was all but that for those earlier souls who endured a life of extreme hardship. Our modern psyche is not equipped to imagine what it must have been like. In the years following WWII they were almost completely abandoned and left to ruin. Today about 1,400 of them remain in the area.

Someone long ago must have taken heed of that voice which says, “If you build it, they will come” and we have! For Alberobello, as you might expect, is infested with tourists, we four adding but slightly to the number that day. It is doubtful that any locals actually live in the commercial center. With real estate prices for these dwelling so high and the now popular Trulli in such demand, who could resist selling? Certainly no recession here! Beautiful and scenic not withstanding, Alberobello is now a series of streets with shop after shop, a few restaurants and maybe an enoteca thrown in for balance. We found the nicest places to be on the rooftops themselves or at least the parts of the roofs where the ‘stone teepees’ morphed to join with an adjacent cone. From these vantage points, accessible from many establishments, you could take in ‘Trulliville’ in one sweeping panorama.

Conveniently, around noonish, in a moment of weakness (for who can ever be really hungry in Italy), we did indulge in lunch on the patio of ‘Il Pinnacollo’ overlooking the coned countryside. I recall the pesto ravioli filled with eggplant that Maria Elena had. Since we were close to the Adriatic, out of duty I tried the frutti di mare filled with enough seafood to populate a coral reef! Under the table umbrella, with wine, baskets of pane, the glorious entrees, the unequaled view and the dear company, it was indeed a Conde Nast moment!

We did get to soak our tootsies in the Adriatic. Frankly, it was like a scene from a Federico Fellini movie. There was a single, square, two story building with a flat fortress-like roof on a slight jetty in the barren shoreline. Water encroached it from three sides. It sat there almost like a watchtower, the lone, solitary sentinel of the beach. A man lounged in one of the upstairs windows in that white, smooth Egyptian cotton material of a classic Italian tee-shirt. He surveyed the few, middle-aged Fiats scattered about outside in the sand, hesitating longer on the occasional passing bather. You could almost see the red glow from each drag of his cigarette. A blue rowboat attached to a long rusty chain lay on the sand amidst the debris of the sea seemingly ready to shove-off. I loved that image. I now have a couple of those tee-shirts myself!

Back in peace and tranquility of the countryside at Localita Pistone #14, our borrowed Trulli, Antonio climbed a tree and tossed Maria Elena a ripened fig. We were used to seeing figs, dried and wrapped in supermarket cellophane, not like these, as juicy as an apple, juicier in fact! They had gone purple with ripeness and split open, exposing their reddish, dripping flesh, begging to be picked. We eventually returned to Calitri with a bag of the ‘most supplicant’ and made jam.

Later that evening, our only night there, we went to dinner at La Tavern da Maurizio located on Rosa Marina Beach. Thankfully, we had reservations. Even in the late hour, it was packed, but then it was a Saturday night in the late summer with undoubtedly lots of Bari city dwellers down for the weekend. We sat outside on a patio under the stars and sipped our wine as we watched a specialist fillet cooked fish and arrange plates for their final presentation. Inside, a brick-lined pizza oven shimmered with intense heat as its perspiring attendants seemingly put in wood and miraculously withdrew scrumptious pizzas! A sinfully endless buffet table of unpronounceable creations lay nearby while a waiter in a red vest, hoisting a large fish into the air from an ice tray, patiently outlined its attributes to qualify it for consumption by a patron with a forefinger to his chin apparently in need of convincing. The owner, ever the past owner still apparently very much attached to the place or very lonely now without it, came by to inquire on our impressions of our meals and chat some. Delightfully engaging, this sensuous night of sights, delicious flavors, generous conversation and smells of sea and fish was as remarkable as the Trulli, indeed Trulli magnificent.

Oh, and what about the incident with gas-cap cover, you may ask? Now there is a story I will never freely relate only to say here and now that I got it fixed later-on but not before much drama, skullduggery and incessant prayers for miraculous intervention! Though Christian, I do not see myself as an obsessive one and remain, after all, but a sinner. Today, my entreaties with respect to this incident fall into the category of prayers for forgiveness on the same order, I’m guessing, as those of the early Trulli owners busy going about reassembling their conical rooftops!

Divertiti, la vita è buono!

Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Trulli”.