Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Quest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Serial Traveler, Paolo

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