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!


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!


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

Amalfi – Stone and Sea

First Published: 19 Mar 2009

I think I mentioned it once before, I like stone, rock, even brick. I’m not a professional geologist or even amateur part-timer by any means but I like their textures and that ageless sense of permanency about them. Since man first picked one up and figured out how to pile one atop another, we’ve been at it. Italy is stone of all types with some excellently fashioned by man and others just naturally lying around in heaps where, long ago, primal forces deposited them. Maybe it all started for me when my mom first read me “The Three Little Pigs” and I learned a moral that stone and rock endure, at least against wolves. With another being - stay away from wolves!

The southern side of one particular rockpile just south of Naples, known as the Sorrentine Peninsula, with its isolated jumble of towns that cling to its rockbound terrain, isn’t far from Calitri but is a world and mindset away when it comes to driving demands and congestion. Time of day and time of season also play important roles along with dreaded road construction, which can foul any excursion.

Yes, the views along the Costiera Amalfitana (Amalfi Coast) are spectacular, that is, when you can risk a glance away from the road. You know something is amiss when convex mirrors, attempting to show you what lies ahead, dot the roadside like wildflowers. In some spots, passage is so tight that, prior to reaching these narrow, blind switchbacks, flagmen with radios control traffic. With towering rock to one side and the possibility of a tourbus on the other, who’d want to joust with either? Each handful of vehicles awaits its turn to run the gauntlet. A whispered entreaty to Santa Maria for nerves of steal and a ‘quick-as-a-ballplayer’ sign of the cross and it’s your turn!

The non-existent shoulder of the cliff road to one side of you cascades sheer into the shimmering azure sea hundreds of feet below. This much celebrated coastline, its stone mantle weathered over the centuries, is a series of stunted spurs that jut out into the sea to be fondled in return by a probing sea, which swirls in the knurly chasms far below. Fjord-like, these ins and outs of land and prying sea account for the spectacularly picturesque coastline and its twisting, turning thread of a road, cleaved from the ridgeline, which travels its length in serpentine fashion. Here, where stone reigns supreme, my allegorical storybook wolf has given way to a rocky serpent!

On the other side of this precarious coastal trail, the side I suggest you favor, intermittently lay whitewashed villages spotted with churches, ancient warning towers and meticulously terraced slopes. They fill the ravines and cling to the mountainsides beckoning you, as did the mythical Sirens, first to come and stay or to return and explore anew.

There is a phenomenon among pilots know as “get-home-itis”. You might guess at what it is and probably be on the mark. Once you launch on a mission, there is this desire to make it home to the wife, kids, comara, whatever. It might even be as mundane as getting to the next base officers’ club for the bachelor types; ‘home’ being a relative term for where ever you are scheduled to land. It goes so far as to tempt some to bust through approach minimums in a hazardous attempt to find the runway, stomp on the rudder to line up and make it in. So here, on something so innocuous in comparison as a snaking road with the danger of unyielding stone to one side or going airborne on the other, my natural instinct is to press-on, get there and then talk about the harrowing experience later, over a beer!

I must be getting old though because the last time we made the drive, I unilaterally decided that in the future we’ll use one of the coastal boats out of Salarno for visits to the various coastal towns or farther off Capri. Maybe it’s just time to “Go Navy”! Going by boat does limit your flexibility some, especially if, for example, you wanted to venture into Vietri sul Mare for that special tableware or climb to lofty Ravello or one of the other ‘balcony on the world’ towns perched high-up, overlooking the sea. But enough time and a bus schedule to spend it on should do to get you just about anywhere.

On this particular day we were driving to the tiny Amalfi coastal town of the same namesake, Amalfi, a place we had been through before but had never had the opportunity to explore. We’d tried, but the lack of parking had done us in. This time our strategy was to leave Calitri early enough to insure this didn’t happen and if the Fates had their way, it might work. Two hours later, the delay due to construction, we nosed our little rental into a stall by the waterfront, safe and sound, mission accomplished. We were now free to explore this gem of a place. Things can be spectacular when nature and man’s stone handicraft come together, with Amalfi being one splendid example. Our first discovery, right on the waterfront, was a monument to local native, Flavio Gioia, a mariner who is traditionally considered the first to introduce the mariner’s compass to Europe. From there, we took a bearing north and headed for the town’s entrance.

Stepping across the coastal road beneath shadowy arches, careful to exploit gaps in the incessant traffic, as if we were characters in a “Frogger” arcade game, we entered the main piazza. It was dominated by a cherub and maiden adorned fountain each emitting streams of water into the surrounding basin. Crowning the fountain was a statue of Saint Andrew, who was martyred on an X-shaped cross, depicted behind him, in the year 64 AD. In an apparent act of reverence, a pitcher loaded with freshly cut flowers rested at his feet. A single red ribbon secured its handle to his leg. Somewhere nearby, at I suspect some nascent hour of the day, someone, I suspect daily, was responsible for this simple expression of admiration.

Across the stone patchwork surface of the plaza, broad stairs lead to the dominating ninth-century Duomo di Amalfi dedicated to, who else but, St Andrew. From the square, looking up at the face of the church, you have the impression it was adorned by a ‘majolica’ artist; majolica being a kind of tableware decoration common to this area. The storefronts are full of it, so why not the facade of the Cathedral!

Amalfi is basically a stylish strip of a town laid out at the mouth of a deep ravine with a single main avenue stretching from the waterfront to the base of encroaching mountains. Along this spine of a thoroughfare, which traces the natural cleavage between inhospitable stone, you find a robust historic community born of the sea. With hostile uncompromising terrain to their backs, the people of Amalfi have always looked to the sea for trade and maritime power. Before the rise of Venice, in fact, the Maritime Republic of Amalfi rivaled Pisa and Genoa in its domestic prosperity and maritime importance. In the twelfth century Amalfi was conquered by Ruggiero II, then the Norman king, with Ruggiero just happening to be the name of our street in Calitri! With the shifting politics of time and the accelerated destruction due to a Mediterranean tsunami in 1343, its fame and grandeur waned, never to recover. In recent times, the streams of past invaders have been replaced by “assault tourists” who, once disgorged from landing craft launched from cruise ships moored offshore, breach the beach and soon flood the town. In the past, these marauders would have been Pisans, Saracen or Normans looking to plunder and control. How times have changed – today’s modern, Euro-laden invaders will leave you your head and at most haggle, only to then leave behind their treasure for that single, foreign afternoon in Amalfi!

The majority of our time in Amalfi was in the cathedral. Saint Andrew, a fisherman and close to the sea, was the brother of Simon Peter and is the patron saint of Amalfi. In 1206, remains of Saint Andrew were brought to Amalfi following the sack of Constantinople by crusaders - a notably similar tale to how St Mark’s remains arrived in Venice. Today, this cathedral’s crypt is said to contain a tomb still holding a portion of the relics of the apostle, to include his skull.

The Duomo is reached after climbing 62 steps - I think that was the count. For a moment there, I had flashbacks of our ascent to the Lantern atop Rome’s St Peter’s (see an earlier Blog entry). The church is a fusion of eastern geometric design and Christianity with its exterior strips, colorful checkerboarding, mosaic accents and complex intertwining pillars. We first entered the Paradise Cloister. This is a rectangular courtyard, strong in Arab architectural overtones, with a covered portico of double columns and an interior garden that was once a burial ground for Amalfi's elite (see related photo album).

Next, we wondered through the adjacent museum. It filled a soaring room that undoubtedly, in its former life, had been the main church. Today, it accommodates an array of treasured art pieces including a magnificent windswept crucified Christ (or possibly Andrew?), religious icons, golden chalices and sunburst monstrances.

Finding a stairwell, we descended into the crypt of St Andrew. It was a cool, somber place of contemplation and worship. You could feel the pious mood of holiness that permeated this place, reinforced overhead by coffered, ornately decorated domes, which pocked the ceiling. Each contained scenes from Andrew’s life. Lifelike statues and dimly lit niches with gated side alters added to the sense of the place. Here indeed was a fitting resting place for the Apostle Andrew’s remains.

A flight of stairs later, we emerged into the nave of the present-day grand cathedral. Here was the ‘new’ cathedral, in the relative scheme of things. Massive, soaring, veneered in marble, again with grand coffered ceilings, this space was gilded and brightly accented with the illumination of stained glass. Light, passing through one window in particular, projected the shadow of a cross across the transom to produce a glistening, yet ghostly shimmering image of itself on a rising column and stained a nearby chandelier with its color pallet.

Outside once again, we sat at a street-side cafe, enjoying a tall, cold ‘limonata’, made from the grapefruit-size lemons native to the area until the sun cast little shadow between adjacent table umbrellas. By this time, people, newly discharged from ship tenders, continually prying the lane between ship and shore, gorged what limited street space there was. The sight put us out of the idea to explore any further. Making a pact with ourselves to return another day to this chaotic yet scenic place, we decided it was time to head back to the peace and quiet of Calitri, a place not nearly as diverse with the clamor of globalization.

For a great roadtrip, why not mosey on over to the Amalfitana coast, run the gauntlet if you dare, and visit one of the richly historic towns you’ll find there, Amalfi being just one. Forgo hesitation and instead unite with the willing, for how else can you dance with the Fates in their beckoning, siren-world of stone and sea?

Divertiti, la vita è buono!


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

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fond Memories of Pantyhose and Pavarotti

First Published: 16 Feb 2009

It was a toss up over what to write about this month and then I got to thinking that a change in venue might be refreshing. So this month, I move my pen to the North to the Lombardy and Veneto regions to tell a story from an earlier visit.

That was the time I actually arrived at Milan’s Malpensa Airport on crutches - no lie - from a back injury suffered just days before. By all rights I should have stayed home in bed, recuperating, but how can anyone pass up a planned trip to ‘Bella Italia’? It was really touch and go there for a while. In fact, on the morning of our scheduled departure I wasn’t able to get myself out of bed, though believe me I tried. Maria Elena, on seeing my plight and realizing I wasn’t going to be able to right myself, suggested calling to cancel the reservations we had waiting but before that, I made one last attempt. This time, with the accumulated help, by now, of many ibuprofen tablets and a handy set of aluminum crutches, I was able to stand upright. Long story short, we went anyway and so there we were being led through the access tunnel from the aircraft, Maria Elena walking beside me, as an attendant rolled me the last few yards into Italy in a wheelchair!

That didn’t last long, however, because by the time we got to our rental, the wheelchair was history. I had straightened out after eight hours of sitting and the crutches I’d brought along were tossed in the back seat never to be used again the entire trip. I’d put my faith in and entrusted our vacation to modern medicine, self administered every two hours, along with a tight, Velcro back support waistband! People stared.

We were headed east, by way of the A4 Autostrada, to the town of Montichiari (‘Monty-key-ah-ree’), located not far from picturesque Lake Garda. Montichiari, which dates from the middle ages, is a lovely town of 20,000 people situated in the Lombardy province of Brescia. Among its jewels is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta (where in 1947 the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared), along with Bonoris Castle, a recreated medieval style fortress built over the ruins of the ancient Rocca.

We were on our way to Villa San Pietro, a 17th century villa painstakingly restored to retain its original character by its owners, Anna Maria and Jacques. If you should ever find yourself there, as guests of this French-Italian couple, as we did, you’ll enjoy a relaxing atmosphere beneath lofty ceiling beams and intricate frescoes estimated to date as far back as 1500 A.D. Ancient brick floors and well appointed rooms with shuttered windows opening to grandstand views over terracotta roofs, each decorated with beautiful antique furnishings, make this an especially peaceful location only a few streets and turns from the center of Montichiari. Sitting there in its secluded courtyard in the shade of a marble-columned loggia, the vestal voices of nuns from an adjacent convent evoked an enchanting heavenly mood and made the quiet even more profound when it returned. There is fact and there is opinion but I feel confident when I say that a stay there will not only bring you back to health but can rejuvenate your soul.

We rested a while hoping to flush our jetlag and then checked with our hostess for a recommendation on where best to eat that evening wherein Anna-Maria made a phone call for a reservation at ‘Trattoria La Capretta’. We followed her directions to this local family-run establishment without any problem. They appeared to be waiting for us. For dinner, we had in mind a shared antipasto with additional side salads. We related this to our waiter and surprisingly, to help decide on what we might like in our antipasto, he led us into the kitchen. The kitchen was dominated by a large marble faced fireplace, the kind you could walk into. It began on the floor and soaring past a broad mantlepiece concluded its assent at the ceiling. They were roasting chicken at the time on a grate over shimmering coals. I recall the heat. This wood fired hearth made the room stiflingly hot and somewhat smoky. In fact, you could detect a faint odor of smoke as far away as the dining room. The younger of the two kitchen attendants, wearing a white, lab-coat type smock, led us to a refrigerator. With gestures, she encouraged us to choose what we wanted in our antipasto. We selected an assortment of meats, cheeses and vegetables. I also spied a glass-doored cooler containing handmade pasta and ravioli. Unable to resist, we also asked for orders of the tempting ravioli. So much with watching our carbs and this was only our first day!

The ravioli came in a butter sauce. Maria Elena sampled it and instantly loved the flavor. She guessed that it contained cinnamon. We never got it straight that night but later found that the special ingredient was pumpkin (‘zucca’). We learned this was a regional specialty and we wouldn’t find it anywhere else in Italy. They were right because since then we haven’t. We should have had more! The staff, everyone, was extremely friendly. In way of testimony in fact, one patron sitting nearby, who was in the cheese business, went to his car and returned with samples for us.

Out and about days later, I noticed a sign above a Montichiari storefront which read “Carna Equina”. I thought I knew what that meant but one additional clue, the chess-piece symbol of a knight, confirmed that my suspicion was correct – horse meat! With an entire store dedicated to horsemeat, they must like it there. No glue factory for these nags! On a return visit to our friendly trattoria days later, you guessed it, I asked if they served ‘carna equina’. Not surprisingly, they did. Maria Elena enjoyed the pumpkin ravioli one last time while I ventured into a new culinary genre. Though I’d eaten rattlesnake and it did taste like chicken, this didn’t! It looked like a slab of bone-in ham, though much redder and very lean. There is something to the adage “People like sausage; they just don’t want to see how it is made!” In this case, once you got past the psychological stigma of its origin, it tasted wonderful.

After our dinner, we moved to a table of locals who waved for us to join them. We had seen some of them on our earlier visit and again around the town. The dozen or so of them were apparently regulars and seemingly, over the visits we made, never with wives. We sang songs, mostly Pavarotti ballads, lead by the headman, the owner’s nephew, Angelo. The owner herself was a no-nonsense woman, cloaked in politeness, who sat in a strategic position facing the door smoking most of the time and not missing a thing. She too wore a white smock like the others, akin to what a doctor would wear. We enjoyed sorbet with the group, which was made right there of lemon, ice cream, champagne and vodka. As the night went on, the songs came easier and the foreign syllables in our foreign mouths became effortless to mimic with each additional sorbet and aperitivo!

At some point, Maria Elena had to use the restroom and excused herself. She headed to where they told her she’d find it, but once there, she was embarrassed to think she’d arrived in the men’s room. She proceeded to the kitchen to ask the female cooks where it was located but they only brought her back to the same place! What had her convinced it was the men’s room was the total lack of a toilet and/or bidet. There was no commode in there at all, just a white porcelain fixture flush (no pun intended) with the floor - Eastern European style through and through! This was it then, she’d have to make do. Nature’s call was complicated further because she was wearing pantyhose. Decisions, decisions - which way to face, what to hold onto, would she ever be able to rise from the deep knee-squat predicament she’d find herself in? Well, always game and a good egg, she did what any self respecting ‘Montichiarian’ would have done in that situation and later, back again among our crooning troop of diners, flashed me a glimpse of her pantyhose, now rolled up in her blazer pocket, with a whispered promise, “I’ll tell you later”!

The rest of our time in this area was spent visiting places like Verona, Lake Garda, beautiful lakeside Salo and Sirmone with its jewel of medieval architecture, Scaligeri Castle, complete with drawbridge. One special highlight was a short roundtrip train ride to Venice for the day.

One particularly special place, not in any tour operator’s crosshairs and lying just south of Lake Garda, is the small “borghetto” town of Valeggio sul Mincio in the Veneto region. It had a quiet charm about it that day but, historically speaking, this is a relatively newly acquired attribute. For in the 13th and 14th centuries this was contentious terrain; a continuous battleground held sway to the strategic ambitions of the city states of Milan, Bologna and Florence. This picturesque village, steeped in an air of lost distinction, is known for its Ponte Visconte (Visconti Bridge), really a fortified dam built in 1393 by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, whose ambition was to unite northern Italy. This bridge, which you can traipse across on foot or by car, is 650 meters long and 25 meters wide. It was once connected to the nearby 13th centruy Scaliger Castle by two, parallel battlements and in this way was integrated into the fortified complex known as the Serraglio defensive line. It’s hard to believe but this ancient ‘Maginot Line’ of its day remarkibly extended for 16 km! The blood which undoubtedly flowed in the Mincio river beneath this bridge is now long gone as is any evidence of the tall stone ramparts where vigilent men passed their lives in fealty to long forgotten causes. Yet it is the souls of these rugged men and their struggles, sacrifices and accomplishments which is our Italy today, the Italy we yearn to return to and explore.

Our trip, well, it ended all too soon. My back eventually healed some but to this day I still experience a twinge now and then, sometimes a total relapse reminiscent of the five days I spent in bed before venturing off to Italy and its Montichiari, castles, tenors and battlements. I am weakened for it but am all the stronger for the experiences and memories gained, which remain more evocative than scenes of the storied, "must see" places we have all been to.



Pilgrimage to Venosa - on the Foundations of Others

First Published: 15 Jan 2009

To our west rises Vesuvius, part symbolic, part daily reality but always a testament to the fact that life is precarious. To our east alongside the River Ofanto, which also flows by Calitri, is the battlefield of Cannae where on a single day in 216 BC 50,000 Romans gave up their spirits fighting the Carthaginian, Hannibal.

Having been in Calitri for some time, we were in the mood for a road trip and while both Vesuvius and Cannae are interesting places to visit, among many, we chose a more innocuous and closer destination, Venosa. We chose Venosa on that pleasant August day not for its history of devastation or human carnage but because of two rather innocent influences. The first of these was word that there was a wine confederation in Venosa where you could buy wines like ‘Aglianico del Vulture’ (pronounced VOOL-too-reh) or other less expensive vintages in bulk, even bring your own bottles to have refilled! The second was a tip that while there to be sure to visit Trinity Church. I was spring loaded to go for just the novelty of a wine refill! We knew nothing about either place but were game for an early morning jaunt and what might materialize along the way.

We left by 8am after a stop-off at Mario’s Café where we bumped into Josephine, the operator of a local market, who insisted on buying us a cappuccino for the road. We then passed through the heart of town and proceeded to zigzag down the mountain road from our Calitrian perch. At the base turned left onto the road toward Melfi. Soon afterward, we picked up signs for Venosa. We were on our way.

We gradually wound our way upward as we neared Venosa, situated as it is on a plateau. We stopped briefly to gaze out over what appeared to be an abandoned village in the valley just below Venosa. A lonely church and a few intact buildings peppered the valley and cast an eerie ghost town feeling - giving rise to questions about the history of this place. Its story would have to wait, for after a few additional climbing turns, we entered the sprawling community of Venosa. Today it is an impressive, well-developed community even though located in what appears to be a relatively isolated area. Its apparent current prosperity is difficult to explain, at least for a new visitor, but I suspect it has something to do with the miles on end of vineyards which extend from the city.

Venosa was founded by the Romans in 291 BC. Disagreement exists concerning the exact origin of its ancient name, ‘Venusia’. The most widely accepted theory holds that the city was founded in honor of Venus, the goddess of love. Some say its naming can be attributed to the village’s delicious wines (‘vinosa’), while still others claim it is due to the many “veins” of water. There is even one faction which theorizes that the name refers to the town’s windy climate (‘ventoso’).

However it came by its name, there is no dispute that in ancient times this was a strategic town along the famous Appian Way, the ‘Queen of Roads’, which stretched from Rome all the way to the port city of Brindisi. In fact, there is a ‘Via Appia’ there today which you can stroll down, though no longer the humble lane of its namesake. Roads from the Ionian Sea, further south, and from inland areas passed exclusively through here and added to its ancient prosperity. Its position made it an important town even during the Middle Ages. In the year 622 it was occupied by the Byzantines and successively conquered at two different periods by the Saracens. It was liberated in 866 by the Emperor Ludwig and re-conquered by the Longobards of Benevento. By 976 it was back in Byzantine hands. Then came the Normans.

We didn’t have a cantina address for Margaret to use but I’m not the type male who refuses to ask for directions. The alternative is to aimlessly wonder around. This I feel is inefficient and nerve racking so I ask when I can and then ask again when I can no longer remember all the ’dritto’s” (straight aheads), ‘a sinistra’s’ (to the left) and ‘a destra’s’ (to the right) which ensue. So we got little doses of directions to the cantina from the frequent inquiries we made out our window of various passers-by, poor devils. We soon spotted the storage tanks, fenced parking lot and non-descript cantina buildings. A little closer, a sign announced we were there. Wouldn’t you know it, it was right on Via Appia! It was quiet, the lot empty and for a time we suspected we’d arrived on a day when the cantina was closed. On closer inspection, the Cantina di Venosa was most assuredly open.

Reminiscent of a western paperback novel, when a cowboy ties up his horse and enters the saloon, Maria Elena and I, now dry and dusty from our own journey, having had our heads out the windows especially toward the end, entered the cantina! Founded in 1957 initially with 27 members, Cantina di Venosa today boasts an association of 500 members with about 900 hectars of vineyards. Inside in a large display hall, arrayed with bottles and bins of small demijohns, we wondered about inspecting labels and displays until a workman from the adjacent production area showed us to a wine sampling station. This was a self-serve sampling bar of 10-12 white and red wines. Small cups were provided to sample the various offers.

Wine doesn’t lie. Truth be, it is incapable of lying. Just taste it and the wine will always tell you its truth! Picked early, too late, too strong a tannin aftertaste, too sweet, a weak bouquet, .... ? Only the truth is revealed when you sip its offering and this we did of them all! We finally narrowed it down to just a handful and after further rigorous analysis, most assuredly based on generous samplings, we bought 2 five-liter demijohns of red (9,50E) and another of white (3,25E). Talk about great value for your money! We speculated that this amount should hold us for a while. Trying to judge the amount of wine to buy is always an inexact science since so many imprecise variables come into plan and buying too much leads to waste when it is left behind. This latter consideration is unacceptable and to be avoided at all cost! Our primary mission accomplished, with the estimated right amount of wine in tow, we were now off to explore Venosa.

Venosa is famed for being the birthplace of the Roman poet Horace perhaps the greatest of the Latin lyric poets, who was born there in 65 BC. Horace once wrote:

I was a small child and on Mount Vulture in Puglia,tired of playing and sleepy, heedless I lay down and miraculous dovescovered me with leaves: …. Horace, "Odes", Book III, n. 4, "Come Down from the Skies and Sing a Beautiful Song"

Today from Calitri, I can look out of our windows onto that same ‘Mount Vulture’, an extinct volcano to our east and am both humbled and awed to think that all those eons ago the Great Gatsby of his day, Horace, looked on these same heights from his vantage point in Venosa. The trace of Horace’s hand on Venosa are impossible to find today but not so of the Normans.

The Normans like their predecessors left traces of their time here in one of the most important and grandest buildings of southern Italy, the Church of the Holy Trinity, also known as the ‘Unfinished Church’ because, you guessed it, the building was never completed. Robert Guiscard, an audacious adventurer, once Count then Duke and later Prince, who would be king if left to him, intended the new church as a pantheon for his dynasty. After his death, however, and due to waning Norman power, its construction was forever interrupted. Following Robert’s death in 1085, his remains were brought back to Venosa. The tomb of this Norman crusader to this day lies in the restored nave of Trinity Church in the family vault.

The abbey complex of the Holy Trinity, of which the Unfinished Church is part and which would have extended to the east behind the main altar there today, unfolded over many centuries. It was begun in the 5th century, when the Old Church was constructed upon the remains of a Roman temple. The Longobards added the first Benedictine monastery in 942, which was subsequently enlarged by the Normans. Inside the church today, it is a case of the old order right beside the new regime - one built upon the foundations of the other, with fascinating consideration by the new for the old. This was most evident where the modern floor was intentionally suspended over the ancient temple ruins which lay below. In places, in fact, the floor is cut away to permit views of the ancient foundation of partial walls and mosaic floors (see related photo album). Of the unfinished church and dream of Robert Guiscard, the scaffolds are long gone. There remain only some external walls and the silent sentinels of six stone columns as testament to work once begun but never completed. It is almost as if the workmen had gone off to lunch but would soon return.

We found the ‘unfinished church’ beside the ruins of the ancient Roman town and together the ensemble was fascinating in its devastation and incompleteness. In this adjacent archeological dig one can visit the Roman baths with its mosaic floor of marine motifs, the remains of private Roman homes including a patrician house of the 1st century AD, called “the House of Horace,” even an amphitheater. The excavations have also brought to light Jewish catacombs and attest to the presence of a once thriving Jewish community there. If Roman ruins are not old enough for you, a nearby Palaeolithic era site dates to a time period 600,000-300,000 years ago! I guess in the timeline of things Maria Elena and I were a little late getting there!

The city itself enjoys an air of prosperity with both a modern part and a more narrow-laned ‘centro storico’. One fine building, just down the street from Trinity Church, at first appeared open to the public but on closer inspection we discovered it was an institute for handicapped boys. One of the supervisors showed us around while the voices of the boys could be heard upstairs at lunch. The day was getting on and the idea of lunch was appealing about then so with Margaret’s assistance we navigated the maze of one-way streets, said goodby to Venosa for now and headed back toward Malfi and Calitri.

Just outside of Malfi, on S.S.303, we stopped at an old haunt for lunch. The food at Agriturismo Sant’Agata is so rich and first-rate that I swear it should be served with an arterial stint! That day we enjoyed:

Antipasti: Peppers, eggplant, potatoes, ricotta fresca, mozzarella balls, fried zucchini patti, fried zucchini blossoms, and meat in oil (surprisingly the dishes just kept coming!) Orecchiette pasta (‘ears’) with pancetta and sausage ‘gravy’, followed by Grilled veal and salad Two bottles of water and wine

All toll, 35,00E Ours was an out and back trip, but Venosa is definitely worthy of a return visit to explore, among other things, its circa 1470 Norman castle (complete with moat, though dry) and the nearby WW II B24 Liberator bomber airfield (if you can find it). On a whim someday, head on over to Venosa yourself. Though once on the main thoroughfare of its day, today it lies far outside the customary tourist circuit, which means that should you visit, you won’t see any buses disgorging hundreds of people. You’ll have the place pretty much to yourself. Hesitate for a moment when you are there. Stare off toward Mount Vulture as if looking at something in your mind and imagine lively Venosa as it once was in its heady days when the traffic of a million feet moved the riches of the East onward to Rome and the mighty legions of Rome, touting their Eagles, trudged along the Appian Way on their way to glory and a place in the annals of history.

Carpe Diem,


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

Monday, June 15, 2009

We Saw Something Special Recently

Florence’s Piazza della Signoria and the Spot Where Savonarola was Executed

First Published: 15 Sept 2008

We saw a play recently. It is now off Broadway in far off Vermont (The Weston Playhouse in Weston, VT to be exact) and it was absolutely wonderful. I can only imagine what the original Broadway production must have been like. Its title was “The Light in the Piazza”.

I’m no expert on the theater but with six Tony Awards to its credit, I’m in good company in thinking it was top notch.

It takes place in Florence and very briefly in Rome during the summer of 1953. An American tourist, Clara Johnson, meets and falls for young Italian, Fabrizio Naccarelli. When Clara's mother, Margaret, learns of their attraction, she opposes it for reasons that only gradually become known to the audience.

There are unique aspects to this production: it is genuinely Italian in flavor, there are multiple narrators, the score has a timeless quality that makes you tingle all over and surprisingly, at times, it uses an operatic dialog. Personally, I was in awe as if this were my first time at a stage performance.

It had all the Italian melodrama you would expect – the steadfast maintenance of ‘la bella figura’, the complexity of Italian home life, love without interest and of course, the obligatory arm waving. It is a mistake to label this confusion. This is Italy after all, albeit in the microburst fishbowl of a playhouse, where everyone does improvisation. No one believes for one minute he or she is an extra on the stage of life. Everyone's a star, no matter how modest the part. In Italy, as in a play, the show must go on!

It was on the order of an American opera although categorized technically as a musical. I mention the music because it breaks from tradition in that it is not your typical Broadway music score like ‘Oklahoma’ where you can hum a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune as you leave. It ventures into the territory of classical music, close to opera, with unexpected shifts in harmony and extended melodies. Noteworthy is the fact that the composer, Adam Guettel, is the grandson of Richard Rodgers!

The dialog is unique. Much of it was spoken or sung in Italian or broken English, since some of the characters were fluent only in Italian. The Italian mother for instance, who doesn’t speak English, comes out of character to translate the Italian for us (“Aiutami’ means help me!”), while Clara’s mother turns to us occasionally with explanatory insights and glimpses into, in her case, a life of interest without love or offers clues into Clara’s ‘special’ nature. In actuality, it is a dual story which unfolds in the piazza, lit by an awakening light, one of new love and one without. For me this dialog made the sometimes Italian, sometimes English and at times heavily Italian accented English so powerfully unique.

The sound and the words conspired to cycle my emotions from bouts of laughter only to be dashed moments later, in more moving moments, to tears.

It all comes together to really produce something of a special character; a great jumble of the unexpected!

If you would like to view snippets of the Broadway version you can find them on ‘You Tube’. Just Google on ‘Light in the Piazza, You Tube’ and enjoy your discoveries. There are many to choose from and you should listen to them all with time to get a sense of the intensely moving experience we had. I have included two here for you to quickly experience the magic:

Light in the Piazza The play’s opening sceen from the television Tony Award performance.

The Light in the Piazza - Passeggiata The late afternoon walk with the shows two young lovers, Clare and Fabrizio.

Sit at home if you’d like with a chilled bottle of Est! Est! Est! or Prosecco and imagine you are in Firenze’s famous Piazza della Signoria. Better yet, pack a few fantasies in your luggage, get yourself a ticket to Florence and experience it for yourself. Go ahead, walk in The Light of the Piazza.



P.S. When you are there be sure to search out the spot in the piazza where the priest, Girolamo Savonarola (21 Sept 1452 – 23 May 1498), was first hung then burned at the stake. I did one morning at first light when the Piazza was deserted. There is a manhole sized marker to identify the spot where he and two others parished. It is at this same spot where Savonarola earlier conducted what has become known as “The Bonfire of the Vanities”..... but those were much different lights in the piazza!

In case the hyperlinks above do not work for you:

a) See “Light in the Piazza” at:

b) See “The Light in the Piazza – Passeggiata” at:

Friday, June 12, 2009

Guinea Pigs in Paradiso

First Published: 10 Oct 2007

It was an event out of the blue. The planets had aligned, the harvest moon was in the sky and we were given a glimpse of Italian culinary paradise along with the opportunity to sample it! For about five hours on a Sunday afternoon everything was perfect.It was an event out of the blue. The planets had aligned, the harvest moon was in the sky and we were given a glimpse of Italian culinary paradise along with the opportunity to sample it! For about five hours on a Sunday afternoon everything was perfect.

The occasion was a special dinner at Pasquale’s Ristorante located in the Birchwood Plaza in the small, New Hampshire town of Candia, just outside of Manchester. Besides being a special dinner, it was also a dress rehearsal for an upcoming soirée later that month at the Italian Culinary Institute (ICI) in New York City. A significant part of the institute is their Italian Culinary Center (ICC), where the dinner will be hosted. It is the mission of the ICC to promote Italian culture and tradition in the United States through Italian cuisine. The ICI and its culinary center are promoted by ‘La Cucina Italiana’ and ‘Italian Cooking & Living’ magazines(, which some of you may be familiar with.

Maria Elena and I, along with a few others, were the gastronomic jury assigned with the ‘weighty’ task of sampling the fare in order to offer suggestions and constructive comments to refine it to an epicurean crescendo. Since you only have few, if any, shots at a New York, 5th Ave venue, why not make it perfecto? Why not indeed!

How did we happen to qualify as food aficionados? Well, I could say it is related to my girth or maybe my food savvy, but not really. It was more of a friend-of-a-friend affiliation. Our amico is Rufus Boyett, a restaurant consultant on fine wines and dining, who we had the pleasure to meet on various occasions at another exceptional Italian institution, Abondante Ristorante, in Meredith, NH. It is Rufus’ friend, Pasquale Celone, who is the chef and owner of Pasquale’s Ristorante, and what a find and new friend he is!

Pasquale was born and raised in the small, Italian, coastal town of Torre Annunziata, which is not far from Pompeii. His passionate interest in cooking became apparent at an early age when he learned that preparing food was a labor of love. Following high school, Pasquale attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of Maria del Toro near Sorrento, where he mastered the basics of la cucina della regione. Being so close to the sea, this training centered on the preparation of the exquisite frutti di mare dishes for which the Bay of Naples is renowned. Afterwards, he was fortunate to secure an apprenticeship at the celebrated Torre Saraceni Ristorante on the Isle of Capri, where working under the direction of some of the greatest chefs in the region, he perfected his skills in la cucina napoletana - skills which he continues to demonstrate today to the delight of his many smiling patrons.

He came to the U.S. in 1989, and in 2000, with the opening of Pasquale’s Ristorante, he realized his lifelong ambition of owning his own restaurant. Since then, he has constantly impressed discriminating diners from New Hampshire and greater New England with his culinary skills.

A major milestone in his career, facilitated with the help of Rufus, occurred in 2005 when he presented a memorable ‘Bella Sera in Campania’ at the ICI, his first appearance there. On this occasion, his guests savored some cucina squisita di Campania accompanied by matching vini fini from the region the Romans understandably called Campania Felix. His performance that night impressed not only those present but also attracted the attention of the Italian Trade Commission, for shortly afterwards he was among those invited to visit Italy as a member of a small and elite group of professional chefs from around the world. While in Italy, this select assemblage participated in an intensive course in la cucina pugliese - all as guests of the Italian Government.

Known primarily for his prowess in le cucine di Campania e di Puglia, Pasquale was genuinely honored when he was invited to present at this year’s ‘Il Festivale Annuale di Tartufi Bianchi’ (Annual White Truffle Festival) featuring the foods and wines from Piemonte and hosted by the ICI.

This brings me full circle then on the whys and wherefores of our being fortunate ‘guinea pigs’, the victims of intense culinary experimentation at the hands of the likes of Chef Pasquale! Will we ever recover from this torturous experience? Hope not!

With this events’ emphasis on white truffles, indigenous to the Piedmont region, and far from his Campanian roots, Pasquale was challenged to pull out all the stops, and as we can testify, succeeded in infusing a little added flair from the sunny ‘Mezzogiorno” to further enhance the magnificent gastronomy of the Piedmont misty mountains. Here is what we sampled that afternoon:

Sunday Afternoon’s Fare w/ Matched Wines

ANTIPASTI Carpaccio piemontese Carpaccio with capers, shaved parmigiano and white truffle dressing.Fonduta Classic cheese fondue of Fontina Valle d’Aosta cheese and truffle oil.VINO - 2006 GAVI DI GAVI (Villa Rosa)

PRIMO PIATTO Tajarin ai tartufi bianchiTaglierini with a butter-sage sauce, parmigiano reggiano, and topped with shaved white truffles.VINO - 2005 DOLCETTO D’ALBA (Mauro Sebaste)

SECONDO PIATTO Stinco di vitello brasatoBraised veal shank, served with porcini mushrooms, polenta, and a white truffle sauce.VINO - 2001 BARBARESCO Riserva (Cantina Rizzi)

DOLCE Bunet della Nonna“Grandma’s pudding” - one of Piemonte’s favorites, made with eggs, fresh cream, chocolate, crushed almond paste amaretti cookies, and Amaretto de Sorano liquor.VINO - MOSCATO D’ASTI (Villa Rosa)

In way of substantive results and gastronomic findings, there was no long deliberation by this juror! You know the expression – ‘to die for’! For my part, I think I recall calling for a little more salt once or twice between refills of the Gavi Di Gavi and Barbaresso! My wife Maria Elena, however, was far more helpful and forthcoming with useful recommendations.

Pasquale and his team (Executive chef Steven Stinnett, Senior waiter Robert Desmond, and others) did a ‘straordinaria’ job in both the food’s preparation and in their explanation of the courses and associated Piedmontese wines (something I personally really enjoyed hearing) and who will, without doubt, eclipse this rehearsal session when the time comes in NYC. Special thanks is also due to my friend Rufus Boyett for his kind invitation, but moreover for bringing Chef Pasquale to the attention of the ICI and who can be credited for bringing fine Italian wines and ‘autentico italiano’ dining to New Hampshire.

If you are ever in the Candia NH area, give Pasquale a call at the Ristorante (603 483-5005), mention la storia d’il cuoco (history of the cook) you read here of his achievements thus far and be sure to ask how it turned out in New York City that evening in October. Then be sure to drop in for some of Pasquale’s Italian ambrosia – he may even have a white truffle or two around.

What a wonderful dining experience we had – masterfully prepared food, fine wines, engaging company and excellent conversation. It was a perfect preamble to our upcoming return to Italia in only a few more days! One interesting comment Pasquale shared with me and which I’d like to leave with you: Time isn’t money; Time is Life!

Divertiti! Paolo

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sicilian Fishing Village

First Published: 3 Jan 2007

Sicilian Fishing Hamlet - to find it just take the funicular down from Taormina, turn left once you get out to the street. Now walk a ways past a few restaurants at road level there until you come to an alley on your right with an arrow pointing the direction to a restaurant further ahead. Follow this narrow alleyway down all those steps (remember, you'll have to make the climb back up later). You will be pleasantly surprised!!


For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Taormina '06”.

Where Everyone Knows Your Name

First Published: 2 Jan 2007

Well, we were not in Venice, Portofino, or Taormina - they were a continent away. I can say, however, that we were at least near the ocean. This time we found ourselves in Newport, Rhode Island for the weekend, visiting relatives. Our choice for breakfast that Saturday morning wasn’t in Italy’s greek neighbor to their east but the maps, wall accoutrements and the mosaic “Yasas” would lend you to think so.

We were in a small, local, Greek-owned restaurant named Mel’s. I love this place and try to get there whenever I’m in Newport. The proprietors of this fine culinary establishment are the Mellekas brothers - Steve and Greg, and ably assisted by various family members, usually their wives. Mel’s has been there for 22 years now and is a veritable local institution in that part of town – they must be doing something right!

There are tables in a small dining room but there is something about the counter there and its phalanx of rotating stools like those I recall as a kid at home in the local W. T. Grants restaurant or Holley’s Drug Store on Main Street. Alongside of you at the counter might be a local fireman, fishermen or a dad out early with his kids. The stools, the counter, its catsup bottles, creamer, salt/pepper, “communal” butter dish and stack of by now, dog-eared newspapers define this place. I imagine you can conjure up a similar institution from your own memory.

The Mellekas’s (hense the name Mel’s) breakfast and lunch eatery fronts Broadway beneath a sign proclaiming “Mel’s Cafenio”. A back door up a short flight of stairs exits onto Spring Street. In years past, this wedge-shaped intersection of Broadway and Spring was the home of the “RI”, another renowned but now departed diner. Although I’m going on hearsay when I say this (but I assure you from reputable sources), the RI on any Saturday night, around 11pm, would be flooded by Newport Catholics ordering last minute hamburgers and hotdogs. A small opening in the wall out to Spring Street dispensed the fare, which then had to be consumed by midnight in order to satisfy communion fasting rules for Sunday Mass! But I have digressed.

My standard breakfast order (I’ve never had lunch there) isn’t on the menu. I’ve been there enough now that the “brothers Mel” will work up a feta and chourico omelet when I appear. That will wake up your taste buds! Along with home fries, toast and coffee, I get to use that communal butter bowl and peruse the newspaper! Conversation ranges from golf to how the Celtics, Bruins or Patriots are doing – after all you are in New England. Be aware, however, that this is no 3, 4 or 5 star haute cuisine concern. My wife, Marie Elena, would advise that you use a restroom before you visit and not concern yourself with a less than spotless floor! This is, after all, a greasy spoon place so don’t let a little grease bother you.

A few years back, Mels expanded through the wall into, I believe, some of the old RI’s space but don’t be heading there some night at 11pm looking for a burger – the brothers are ensconced only from 5am to 2pm.

If you have an itch to explore, off the beaten path that is, stop at Mel’s and mention I sent you in their direction.

Yasas, Paolo