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.



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",


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.